Originally created 02/21/00

Late accidents shuffle Benson back



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Johnny Benson was on the verge of becoming Mr. Upset at the Daytona 500. That's when Mr. Excitement stepped in and helped Dale Jarrett take the title.

Jimmy Spencer -- known as Mr. Excitement for his aggressive driving -- got into two crashes, one with Dale Earnhardt, another with the wall.

Those accidents Sunday brought out a pair of yellow flags over the final six laps.

The first set Jarrett up for his winning pass of Benson on lap 197. The second helped last year's Winston Cup champion win NASCAR's biggest race for the third time. Jarrett took the checkered flag under caution, going just 70 mph.

Benson insisted the first of the final two caution flags cost him the race.

"If the green flag stays out, I would have been OK and I would have won this," said Benson, who hasn't made much noise in Winston Cup since winning the rookie of the year award in 1996. "But it didn't. Then, I've got four Fords ganging up behind me. I knew I didn't have much chance."

Indeed, Benson had little hope in his lonely Pontiac once the caution came out.

It happened on lap 193 after Spencer, who was no factor in the race until the end, bumped into Earnhardt, who had been shuffled back to the pack a few laps earlier.

They nudged. The contact sent Michael Waltrip's car flying. The yellow came out and Benson's best shot at the biggest victory of his life was gone.

"I figured I was going to have a pretty big-sized party," Benson said. "But, you've got to wait until the checkered."

A caution in the final 10 laps brings on a single-file restart for the championship.

So, they lined up, Benson against the wolves in Fords -- Jarrett, Jeff Burton, Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin.

"It was pretty obvious what they were going to do then," Benson said.

Not 500 feet after the green flag waved, Burton, Elliott and Wallace were pushing Jarrett, helping him draft to the inside of Benson.

Benson made one decent attempt to block the charge and hold on for his first Winston Cup victory. But there was no holding off the best driver, Jarrett, especially when he was being pushed by the best cars, Fords.

"All the Fords are going to work together in that spot," Elliott said. "You've got five or six Fords at the top. Benson would have won the race if the restart didn't happen."

Burton and Elliott might have had a chance, too. But Spencer's decision to stay on the track after the first accident nullified that. Driving with damaged tires, he slid into the wall just two laps after Jarrett had taken the lead. With debris on the track, the yellow came out again as the cars crossed the finish line with one lap left.

"We shouldn't have been in that accident, we should have pitted after flat-spotting a tire," Spencer said. "It was just dumb on our part. When that happens, you're going to get into the fence."

Spencer's mistake gave Jarrett the chance to coast to his victory, an anticlimactic finish to a race that lacked much excitement until the one, frantic restart lap.

Questions immediately surfaced as to whether NASCAR should mandate a green-flag finish in the case of late accidents, like those involving Spencer, who spent time in the infield care center after the race, but wasn't seriously hurt.

"You can't say that would be better for racing," Burton said. "It's hard enough to plan strategy. It might be harder to do if you had that kind of rule. You can't always get the perfect ending."

Benson would surely agree.