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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Now that’s what I call a finale! Benson uses pit strategy to take Truck Series title

For the final 50 laps of Friday night’s Truck Series race, race fans were treated to nonstop, edge-of-your-seat, heart-pounding, three- and four-wide racing action that culminated in one of the tightest championship wins in NASCAR history and a race that can be considered an instant classic.

While I could probably count on one hand how many times that happened this year in the Cup series, it happens about every other week in Trucks, and the season finale was no exception. Hats off to Michigan native Johnny Benson, who struggled early in the race and seemed destined to lose the title to the stronger-running Hornaday until a pair of caution flags helped turn the tide in his favor.

Coming into the race only 3 points ahead of Hornaday, basically whoever finished in front of the other was going to win the championship. On a night where those in attendance at Homestead definitely got their money’s worth, Benson managed to finish one spot ahead of Hornaday and claim the title by 7 points, even closer than the mythical Alan Kulwicki Cup title win in 1992.

By taking only two tires with 43 laps remaining, Benson was definitely taking a risk, as he would clearly be at a disadvantage compared to the other trucks. But it was the final race and potentially the final pit stop. Benson needed to get up front to have a shot at the title, so the two-tire call was his best chance.

The next fateful decision came with only 10 laps left, when a caution came out and the two contenders had to decide whether to pit. Hornaday was having radio trouble and couldn’t communicate clearly with his crew (perfect timing, right). He came in for tires, but Benson did not despite speculation that he might. At the time, Benson thought he had made a mistake.

But that’s not how it worked out. As the race came to a close, Hornaday and his fresher tires started passed drivers and getting closer to Benson. But even with a green-white-checkered finish, he didn’t have enough time to catch and pass Benson, who held on his first series title and denied Hornaday his fourth series title. Benson joins Greg Biffle as the only drivers to win titles in both the Busch (Nationwide) Series and the Craftsman Truck Series.

And while it looked like he was a welcome guest in the pits Friday, you can bet KHI team owner Kevin Harvick and Hornaday are more than a little pissed off right now at Ryan Newman, who was driving a KHI truck a couple weeks ago at Atlanta and pulled a kamikaze move to pass Hornaday, his teammate and a title contender, for the win. That little stunt cost Hornaday 15 points, and apparently the title. I don’t fault Newman for being a racer and wanting to win, but I wonder if he would change that move if he knew the impact it would later have on the team.

At the time, Harvick said there’s no such thing as team orders on his team. Maybe after seeing how that policy played a role in him losing the championship, he’ll revise it next year.

Edwards will win, but it won’t be enough
So far this weekend, Carl Edwards has shown he is the class of the field. He’ll win Sunday's race, and lead the most laps, but don’t get too excited. There’s no way Jimmie Johnson is going to finish worse that 36th unless one of the Roushketeers decides to play dirty and crash Jimmie out of the race on Lap 1 (Or perhaps they can draft David Gilliland from the Yates affiliate … He‘s shown he‘s crazy enough to wreck someone for no reason and has nothing to lose).

Yes, we have to accept an ugly truth. Jimmie Johnson will win a third straight title this year, and perhaps a fourth straight and a fifth straight unless the rest of the field steps up its game. The #48 team is not going to get any worse, and we just have to hope Kyle Busch and Edwards, or someone else, can avoid enough bad luck to be legitimately in the hunt when Homestead rolls around in 2009. Until then, everyone’s favorite criminal Rick Hendrick will be hoisting up his umpteenth championship trophy.


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