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A well-oiled machine Part-owner Valvoline big boost for Benson

In a TV commercial, Dale Jarrett jokes about driving a big, brown truck.

In a TV commercial, Dale Jarrett jokes about driving a big, brown truck.
But for Johnny Benson, driving a big truck was no joke last season. He and crew chief James Ince wound up doing exactly that -- driving the massive 18-wheel transporter full of cars, parts and tools -- for their underfunded and short-handed team.

''There were weeks that Johnny drove the truck to the racetrack, weeks that I drove the truck to the racetrack,'' Ince says. ''There were weeks that I paid for parts out of my pocket, weeks where Johnny paid for parts out of his pocket. There was a long time last year that Johnny didn't even get paid to drive the race car.''

Several high points, including nearly pulling off a shocking win at Daytona, made the effort worthwhile. But the lack of a stable sponsor eventually caught up with them and they ran out of money. ''We loaded the car up for Pocono, and we weren't going,'' Benson says.

This year things are looking up -- and several big-name drivers are looking up at Benson, who is third in points behind Jarrett and Jeff Gordon.

The turnaround has a lot to do with new owners and a new sponsor. Actually, the sponsor is one of the new owners. Valvoline owns 50% of the team; MB2 Motorsports, which also fields a car for Ken Schrader, owns the other half. So what's in it for Valvoline? ''They get a better idea of what's going on, where the money's going,'' Benson says. ''So when you go back and say, 'We need more money,' you don't have to sell it to them.''

James Rocco, Valvoline's senior vice president of operations, says only one other Winston Cup team, the No. 77 Jasper Engines car driven by Robert Pressley, is owned by its sponsor. However, such arrangements are relatively common in Formula One racing. As the costs to compete in NASCAR surge, will this become a trend? ''I don't know if it's good for everybody,'' Rocco says. ''I think a lot of folks are watching us.''

Although Valvoline is spending more money now than it did as Mark Martin's sponsor, Rocco says it gets more in return. Valvoline has a direct say in who drives the car and what other sponsors' names appear on the car, and it has more flexibility to change the car's paint scheme to promote its other products.

For Benson, a lifelong gearhead who began working on cars in his father's shop at age 7 and is building a race car in his garage during his free time, the increased attention that comes with being a front-runner hasn't quite come yet. ''That's fine,'' he says. ''I like it this way. I would rather be third and be quiet than to be in fourth or fifth and making lots of noise. We like to make our noise on the racetrack.''

Then there's the small matter of getting his first win. When is that going to happen?

''To tell you the truth, it's awful hard to answer that question,'' says Benson, whose best career finishes are second place at Bristol (Tenn.) and Dover (Del.) last year. ''But as long as we're putting ourselves in position and running top-10s and top-fives, man, one of these times we've got to hopefully get through to victory lane.''

Despite its lofty position in the points, Ince says the team isn't eyeing a championship yet. ''We're practicing to win a championship next year,'' Ince says. ''If it works out this year, that's great, but it's not our agenda.''