Tuesday, November 16, 2021

FEATURE: Norm Benning thanks Al Niece for the opportunity after he falls short qualifying for Phoenix finale

With just minutes before the start of Truck Series qualifying for the 2021 season finale, the Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix, most of the field had been pushed onto pit road. Most, that is, except a white Chevrolet parked in the shade of AM Racing’s large hauler. The truck with a bold #6 on the doors was still on jack stands with a crew of no more than six working underneath, particularly on the splitter. Among them was Charlie Langenstein, who that same weekend would work his final weekend with the closing StarCom Racing. There was a mallet on the ground, someone’s phone on the deck lid, and a NASCAR official watching everything closely.

It wasn’t great timing on my part to have had that be the moment I’d walk up to the Norm Benning Racing crew with a sticker in hand, but I was determined. The Cup race at Martinsville hadn’t even ended when the team contacted me about getting a LASTCAR.info sticker on the passenger side b-post. A quick print job by the Jukebox sticker company got the 6-inch-square sticker in my mailbox before my brother and I drove out on Thursday, and 11 hours of driving later, I was there to deliver it to the crew. One of them pointed to Norm’s hauler at the other end of the garage, but I met my contact Jack on his way back. He checked with the official before carefully applying the sticker, and even took the time to photograph me standing by the truck before returning to work.

Of all the seasons through which the 69-year-old veteran from Pennsylvania has raced, 2021 may have been Benning’s most difficult yet. At Kansas, the pickup truck with which he towed his small hauler to the track was stolen, stranding his crew in the garage until a friend could pick them up. While the truck was recovered, it was seriously damaged, and there still more races to run. The truck made it to Gateway, where NASCAR no longer allowed him to run an older nose on his #6, and prevented him from qualifying. Through it all, he still made 13 starts, but five times was parked for not maintaining minimum speed, often with vigorous objections from the driver.

But Phoenix promised to be a different story. Benning wasn’t running his own black #6, but a white Chevrolet prepared in the Niece Motorsports shop. The chassis, built in April 2015, was entered alongside Al Niece’s four trucks for Ryan Truex, Carson Hocevar, Dean Thompson, and Lawless Alan. Three of those four teams had struggled for most of this year while Hocevar made a bid at the Championship Four that fell just short the previous week in Martinsville. Benning brought his crew, transporter, and tools to the track – parked next to Niece’s hauler inside Turn 2. The result was perhaps the best truck Benning had ever driven since he first competed in the series in 2002, and the first time he’d received so much support from a multi-truck team. Niece’s logo was on the tailgate.

There were a couple noticeable details to Benning’s truck. The driver’s name on the rear glass was not pre-printed, but cobbled together from strips of white tape. Just like at Daytona, the rear decklid was covered in underdog “bones” with handwritten names of supporters (a promotion I’d joined before being offered the sponsorship). Among these well-wishers was Kathy Beshears, whose decal was placed beneath a photo of her late father U.S. Navy veteran Stephen Beshears, who died in 2012. In addition to returning sponsors Poppy Packs and Race City Sports Memorabilia, primary backer MDF A Sign Co. had also placed his logo in reflective decals on the truck, anticipating a race under the lights. While the company’s logos have only appeared more recently on the #6, the Florida-based business had been backing Benning since his early years in the series, running the same ketchup-red #57 as his famous Eldora Last Chance Qualifier in 2013.

Benning needed every ounce of speed from his new ride if he hoped to start the race. Phoenix was one of the series’ few races with an actual qualifying session, and 41 teams had answered the call to attempt a reduced 36-truck field. The effort was helped before Friday practice even started as both Spencer Davis Motorsports and Peck Motorsports had withdrawn, meaning just three entries would fail to qualify. Still not a guarantee, but the odds had somewhat improved. They needed to. In practice, Benning ranked just 37th of the 39 drivers who clocked at least one lap. After 29 laps on the oval, he was still 2.238 seconds off the pole. Thus, the crew worked feverishly until there was no time left. After issues in technical inspection, there was even less time to be had.

Benning drew 17th in the qualifying order, between fellow owner-drivers Dawson Cram in the #41 Be Water Chevrolet and Jordan Anderson in the #3 Lucas Oil / Bommarito.com Chevrolet. But when it came to Benning’s turn, the truck wouldn’t fire. Other trucks had stalled momentarily as the driver accelerated off pit road, but it was clear something else had happened. Two crew members came up to the driver’s window to help while NASCAR officials waved Anderson out of line to make his run. Benning tried to start the truck again, the starter chirping to no avail. NASCAR waved Hailie Deegan by. Then the engine fired, and the crew walked away. But then it stalled again, and Deegan left for her lap. Finally, the engine fired again, and before Ben Rhodes could be moved around him, Benning was off. 

On his first lap, Benning broke loose, and crossed the line with the engine sounding flat. He tried to make it up on the second, but it was no good. His time of 29.277 second (122.963mph) was slowest of the session, out of the field with Cram and Jennifer Jo Cobb.

The crew walked dejectedly through the infield and back to the entrance of Turn 3, where the qualified trucks parked perpendicular to the pit wall. When I got there, the small group stood together next to a pit box, each on the verge of tears. I decided against doing an interview right away, and told the team how much I appreciated getting the site’s logo on their truck. Benning began to describe that the kill switch was accidentally triggered. At that point, I began to perform the interview.

“Yeah, Ilmor figured it out - there was a problem,” said Benning of the kill switch trip. “They said there was also a problem with the main - it was hanging up, so it wouldn't start. They figured it out. We just - this is a brand new truck and it just wasn't set up for this racetrack. We tried to do what we could in 50 minutes (of practice). I overdrove it going into (Turn) 1 there and it just slid right up the track and you're hanging on at that point, but I ruined both laps by doing it. I boiled the right rear tire off driving it sideways. It's a shame. We came out here to race. We have (ABC, A) Sign Company on here and different people. I want to thank Al Niece for what he did. He was a huge help. But we just - the truck wasn't set up for here.

“It went from wrecking loose to too tight to wrecking loose. We just couldn't fix it in 15 minutes. We tried and we gained on it, but not enough. Then I said the driver overdrove it - I was doing everything but wrecking. I'm gonna get everything I can out of it. But it was a little too far and it ruined the second lap.”

"Al Niece approached me. He's a great guy. And he really, really wanted to help me. I don't know what happened. They had - they decided to bring four trucks here and they were having their issues, so it just snowballed. We had a truck that needed some engineers or something and just didn't happen. They had their hands full. But I can't thank Al Niece enough. . .Like I said, Al's great, just had some issues in inspection and got us behind on everything else we needed to do. Long way to drive. . .I'm just really disappointed right now. I thought I had a great truck.”

Racing is a cruel business, particularly for those drivers and teams on the back half of the grid. It takes a special breed of competitor to persist against such adversity. While Benning may not have been able to start the season finale, it was an honor to be aboard, if only for qualifying. Norm would also like to personally thank Al Niece for the opportunity to drive his truck. The team’s plans for 2022 are still coming together, and we will see the result when Daytona arrives next February.

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