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Westmoreland County native Benning puts up fight in Daytona

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 1:51 p.m.
Tim George Jr. (5), Max Gresham (8), Brennan Newberry (14) and others get caught up in a crash as Norm Benning (57) and Ross Chastain (19) try to avoid the mess during the NASCAR Truck Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Friday, Feb. 22, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Darryl Graham)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Just as Norm Benning began to maneuver through heavy traffic at Daytona International Speedway, an oft-inevitable crash left trucks scattered about the racetrack.

Benning, a Green Level native, did what he does best on the 2 12-mile oval. He avoided the melee - save a slightly wounded left front fender - by smartly threading his way through debris and mangled machines.

Ultimately, the consummate escape artist survived to finish 17th in the season-opening Camping World Truck race. It was a splendid run for Benning's under-funded program that landed a major sponsor only two weeks before Nextera Energy Resource 250.

Benning started 32nd in the 36-truck field. He slipped back to 35th before finding a groove on the outside of the racetrack that enabled him to reel in the frontrunners midway through the 100-lap race.

"The low line wasn't working for me because the truck was loose all night," Benning said. "I could drive it loose up top, but these trucks don't like having another truck on the left-side quarter panel.

"Everybody knows they can win if the draft works in their favor. I shot up there quite a few times but the hole would close. I could force the issue and possibly wreck or hit the brakes. I rather finish than take a huge risk."

Benning was cautious, mostly because he doesn't have the backup cars or equipment of heavily funded teams like Turner Motorsports and Kyle Busch Racing.

Yet, near the end, Benning found himself pushing Busch toward the lead as winner Johnny Sauter threatened to pull away uncontested over the final 12 laps following a 5-car crash on Lap 88.

As Benning pulled out the restrictor plate and pressure relief valve to give to a NASCAR official, he said he was appalled that Busch hadn't wandered through the garage to thank him for a second-place finish.

Benning, though, was more annoyed at himself. He passed a number of trucks, including Sauter, but was forced to race conservatively to save his truck for his next start in April.

"We were in the hunt all night long," Benning said. "The engine was so fast own the outside by myself. It didn't sort it out enough for me to go to the front. I had a truck that could have won the race.

"We don't have a huge budget, so we will be out of business if I wreck my truck. I have to do what best for my equipment even though it kills my ego. I want so bad to stick my nose into those places."

"I'm not satisfied. I came here to win. The cards didn't fall right, especially the cautions at the end. I could have blasted my way through there and had a top 10 or a top 5 - or a wrecked truck. So, until

I have a serious budget, this is how I drive."

Still, Benning left DIS afterward feeling good about his chances of competing this year.

"This gives us a huge momentum," said Benning, who hopes to mentor a young driver. "I just live for this moment - to have a competitive truck and being in contention."

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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