Benson leads off latest round of NASCAR rankings

By Jeff Birchfield

STAR Staff
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   Now we begin a look at the top half of drivers in this special statistical series to rank the top veteran NASCAR drivers. Today we will count down from positions 19-14.
   To look at previous rankings and how we came up with this, you can go to the online edition of the STAR.
   19. Johnny Benson (33 points)
   Rockingham in October, Benson finally shed the dreaded label of best Winston Cup driver to have not won a race after the chance to possibly end his winless streak a few weeks earlier at Martinsville. He chose to race eventual winner Kurt Busch clean instead of knocking him out of the way.
   Those in the sport would expect nothing else from Johnny, one of the sport's most respected drivers. He entered the series with impeccable credentials, winning his home track championship at Berlin (Mich.) Raceway. Benson then moved up the touring ranks winning Rookie of the Year and championships in both the ASA and Busch Series.
   His record in the Busch Series was stellar, winning the 1995 title in a rout over second place Chad Little. He brought the same intensity to WC, winning the 1996 Rookie of the Year award. Surprisingly, he hit a stand still while driving for Jack Roush as it looked like the once promising career might be on a downswing.
   The involvement of sponsor Valvoline as part owner in Johnny's current team helped Benson reach the next level. With a points finishes of 11th in their first year together and the team's first win in their second season, Benson is a contender to score more victories.
   18. Steve Park (37 points)
   Park ranks high on the list, based largely on his pre-injury performances. It is no secret that he has been one of the main topics of the rumor mill since his Darlington crash, with many questioning if he had come back from a head injury too soon.
   Injuries have plagued Steve as bad as any driver in the series, as he was eliminated in 1998's contention for Rookie of the Year after a hard crash at Atlanta.
   A healthy Park won two of the most memorable races in recent years. First was taking the checkered flag in front of his New York home crowd at Watkins Glen and second was an emotional win for DEI at Rockingham after the fatal crash of team owner Dale Earnhardt the week before.
   Before hitting the Winston Cup trail, Park raced his way into the top series, winning Rookie of the Year and Most Popular Driver awards in the Busch Series. He is also a two-time runner-up in the Modified series and a two-time pole winner in Winston Cup.
   17. Michael Waltrip (38 points)
   Credit the late Dale Earnhardt for seeing something in Waltrip, most of the rest of us failed to. The prevailing thought was that 'Darrell's younger brother' was destined to be nothing more than a journeyman racer. Given the opportunity, Michael now owns two Winston Cup wins to go along with two career poles.
   There are still his critics out there, who claim he is only a restrictor-plate racer. However, Michael is doing his best to shed the one-dimensional label. He posted an impressive second place at Homestead in 2001 and had a good summer stretch of races for DEI besides winning Daytona this past season.
   Outside of the premier series, Waltrip has done very well. He won the Dash Series championship in his rookie attempt at the tour in 1983 and has been a nine-time winner in Busch Series competition.
   16. Ward Burton (48 points)
   Burton runs best when the stakes are highest with two of his five Winston Cup wins, coming in the sport's majors - the Southern 500 in 2001 and this past year's Daytona 500.
   Extremely loyal to Bill Davis Racing, his association with the No. 22 team is the sixth longest in the series, outdating the entire careers of many of the circuit's younger drivers. That includes a stretch from Rockingham in 1995 to the spring Darlington race in 2000, when they failed to win a race, making them a model for the old saying 'Good things come to those who wait'.
   It should be added that the team did score over 50 top ten finishes and three of Ward's seven career pole positions came during that time period.
   If there is an Achilles heel with Burton and the Davis team, it has been their high number of DNF's and a propensity for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What should have been his career best year in 2002 was scarred by mechanical failures and crashes relegating Burton to 25th place in the standings.
   15. Terry Labonte (52 points)
   Until he wins again, the question will hang out there of whether Labonte has ever fully recovered from his 2000 Daytona crash which ended his Ironman streak at 655 consecutive races. A winless streak extending back to Texas in 1999 moves Terry down in the driver rankings.
   Before counting him out, remember that Labonte came back in 1996, a full 12 years after his first NASCAR title, to become champion for a second time. A trendsetter, he was one of the first Cup drivers to start driving at a very young age, as quarter midgets were his version of Little League.
   His credentials speak for themselves, besides two Winston Cup titles, Terry owns 21 race wins, 26 poles, and is a former IROC champion. Career numbers might have been better, but the years between leaving Junior Johnson in 1989 and arriving at Rick Hendrick's shops in 1994 were spent with mid-level teams.
   For the present, there is a sense of urgency to get things turned around as Terry has slipped positions in the year end standings every season since winning his second title.
   14. Kurt Busch (58 points)
   The hottest driver at the end of the 2002 season, Busch capped off his breakout year with 3 wins in the final 5 races and a late season charge which vaulted him from 12th to 3rd in the final point standings.
   Most impressive was that Busch managed to win races on four different shaped ovals, the high banked short track of Bristol, the flat short track at Martinsville, the Speedway Motorsports trademark quad-oval at Atlanta and the flat 1.5 miler at Homestead. He came extremely close to winning two other times at California and New Hampshire, serving notice that he was a force to be reckoned with.
   At 24 years old, Kurt is the first of the "young guns" to have extensive seat time in Dwarf cars. Besides winning the Nevada Dwarf car title, Busch is an accomplished short track stock car driver, the youngest champion ever on the Southwest tour.
   Although you don't want to put too much stock in one season, given his age and progression, you have to believe Kurt has the tools become a Winston Cup champion.