Eldora darling Norm Benning ready for more dirt
July 21, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
For a brief, fleeting window of time last July, Norm Benning arguably was more famous than Annette Bening. Making a stirring drive into the main event of NASCAR's most unique race last season helped the 62-year-old veteran become a trending topic on Twitter and draw a multitude of respect from his peers.
Now, heading back to Eldora Speedway, the scene of his brush with stardom last season, Benning wonders what he'll do for an encore.
"My problem now is I've got to try to outdo that story," Benning said two weeks ago at Iowa Speedway, site of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series' most recent race. "I think we're going to be better prepared this year than we were last year."
Benning will have a chance to prove it come Wednesday in the series' return to dirt for the second annual 1-800-CarCash Mudsummer Classic (9 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1). The wild-card nature of the race is viewed as an opportunity for Benning, whose team lacks the funding of its more well-heeled competitors.
"It's a lot more level playing field being on the dirt," said Benning, who ranks 17th in the series' standings. "As they say, horsepower and aerodynamics don't have a lot to do with it. You're just running around out there, bouncing off walls all night. It's a lot of fun."
In the inaugural event, the first race for a NASCAR national series on dirt since 1970, Benning used his dirt-track background and wall-banging expertise to produce one of the most enduring memories of the whole season. Just minutes later, the rest of the truck series garage provided another.
In the last-chance qualifying race, Benning battled tooth and nail with Clay Greenfield in a fender-clanging battle over the final two laps for fifth place, the final transfer spot for the main event. Benning made contact with the outside wall and Greenfield's truck numerous times over the final lap and a half, but kept his foot in the throttle to take the last starting berth, prompting a matter-of-fact quote that quickly became his motto -- "I just never lifted."
As soon as Benning finally got out of the gas on the cool-down lap and came to a stop in the garage, multiple crew members from other teams went to work on his No. 57 Chevrolet, trying to patch up his truck in time for the feature. It was a scene that track owner Tony Stewart later described as one of the best moments of the entire event.
"I really appreciated all the help I got and they were impressed with what we did in that qualifying race," Benning said. "I couldn't believe it -- my crew couldn't get near the truck. There were people working on my truck I didn't even know. I couldn't believe -- there must've been a hundred people there, and that's what really tickled me, to see the respect I got for that deal."
Besides the respect, there was plenty of attention and a small sponsorship bump for his underdog team. Stewart acquired Benning's last-chance truck -- damage and all -- and said that it will be on display when NASCAR descends on the Western Ohio half-mile this week.
"It was important to me just because of the history of the event," Stewart said Monday. "I don't know that everybody remembers who won the race as much as everybody remembers Norm Benning's last couple laps just to get in the race in the last‑chance race. So I thought that just kind of summed up what the inaugural event is all about and how that was a defining moment of what bringing the NASCAR trucks back to Eldora and bringing them back to dirt, what it was really about.
"I thought being able to purchase Norm's truck and help him out, help him get a newer truck and for us to have that bit of history, I thought that was pretty important."
The NASCAR Hall of Fame also came calling, and Benning's helmet and driving gloves from Eldora were donated. Stewart's track also offered its support in the season-opening event at Daytona International Speedway, placing its Big E logo on the side of his No. 57.
Every little bit helps for Benning, who is aiming to cash in on his status as a dirt-track folk hero by selling T-shirts emblazoned with his Eldora slogan from the year before. Despite his team's shoestring budget, Benning keeps forging ahead as an independent, showing up for every race as he has every season since 2009.
"I just love driving these things," Benning said from the back of his modest racing hauler in Iowa. "Whenever it's not fun any more, I'll quit and get somebody else to do it.
"Every once in a while, I get to shine a little bit."