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Westmoreland County man finishes 20th in NASCAR Truck Series race

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Norm Benning, a Level Green resident, rolled into Daytona International Speedway somewhat short-handed. He didn't have a big enough pit crew and he search through the garage earlier this week looking for a splitter.

But the veteran NASCAR truck driver slugged it out against bigger teams with deeper pockets for nearly the entire 100 laps of the NextEra Energy Resources 250 on Friday night.

The 62-year-old Benning, who was stuck at the back of the pack, saved his best move for Lap 74 when Mason Mingus triggered a 17-car crash. The accident sidelined many race favorites, including pole winner Ben Kennedy.

Kyle Busch survived the crash and a last-lap challenge from Timothy Peters to take the checkered flag by the width of a hand.

Benning, who finished in 20th place, barely maneuvered through the scattered debris as he was squeezed in between trucks coming through Turn 2. Then, he threaded his way through and escaped with only a dented quarter panel.

Suddenly, the cash-strapped Benning was racing for more than pocket change after the cleanup from The Big One was complete. He survived the carnage to move from 30th to 15th, and won $14,025.

“They just got stupid over there and got into one another,” Benning said. “There were six or eight cars sideways, but my spotter (Jim Johnson) called it and I got up and got on the brakes to slow it down enough to turn through it.

“I have something in my grill — like a spear. It's why I lost speed at the end and there's nothing left of the right splitter.”

“I happen to be pretty good at missing those (accidents).”

No one could seize an advantage before NASCAR's mandatory competition caution on Lap 20. Kennedy stubbornly held onto the lead with Ron Hornaday and Matt Crafton pushing him along the apron as they jockeyed for position around the 2½-mile oval.

Clearly, the leaders weren't interested in getting out of line with so much uncertainty about these slightly altered trucks. Benning, starting at the rear of the 36-truck field, patiently waited until the trucks paired in tandems 33 laps into the 100-lap race.

“It was a top 20, so now we go back to Pittsburgh and get ready to run again,” said Benning, who finished 17th here last year. “The hardest thing in the world to do is be careful. I cost myself about four or five positions. I'm not real happy because I believe I had a top-10 truck.”

Benning moved steadily and methodically up the tote board to 32nd a third of the way through the circuit's season opener. He partnered with Jennifer Jo Cobb as they split drafting positions to maintain contact with the leaders.

It was a challenge, though, for Benning. He wasn't sure how long his fragile splitter, which was damaged in Thursday's practice, would hold up, particularly under duress from the bumping and grinding that was sometimes inevitable in the corners.

“We only did three laps of practice because of our splitter issues,” Benning said. “It wasn't illegal, but we kept hitting it in practice. We've still got a problem, partly because of the wreck.”

Benning came here locked onto the starting grid after finishing 20th in points in 2013. He didn't record a pole or top 10-finish last season, but his gutsy performance at last year's race at DIS left him feeling confident he could at least contend with the top drivers.

And he kept moving steadily toward the front midway through the race. On Lap 50, he swept smartly past Tyler Reddick, the 10th-fastest qualifier.

Then, as the leaders had one mishap after another on pit road during a caution on Lap 53, Benning found himself running in the 19th position. But he was shuffled back to 30th after making his service stop on pit road.

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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