By one position on the racetrack in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnny Benson won the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship, 13 years after claiming his only title in the Nationwide Series.

Benson and Greg Biffle are the only drivers to have won championships in both the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series, but not until Ron Hornaday Jr. came up four truck-lengths short in his desperate attempt to catch Benson in the closing laps at Homestead was the issue decided.

Benson also is the last Craftsman Truck Series champion, with title sponsorship moving to Camping World starting in 2009. Beginning with the series' debut in 1995, Craftsman sponsored the trucks for 14 consecutive years.

That the title wasn't decided until the final race of the season was a fitting end for a campaign during which two evenly matched teams gradually separated themselves from the rest of the field and staged a battle that was the closest in series history entering the last event. A week earlier, at Phoenix, Benson and Hornaday had performed a comedy of errors - Hornaday spun and wrecked on the first lap and Benson struggled to keep his #23 Toyota between the walls at the 1-mile track.

Quick work in the garage, with some unexpected help from the Ford team of Roush Fenway Racing, got Hornaday's Chevrolet back on the track in time to finish 25th, one position better than Benson. That halved Benson's advantage in the championship standings to three points entering the Ford 200 at Homestead.

Hornaday had the better truck at Homestead, but pit strategy worked in Benson's favour - and to his rival's detriment - in deciding the championship. Crew chief Trip Bruce kept Benson on the track while Hornaday came to the pits for fresh tyres on lap 126, and that proved decisive. Hornaday restarted 13th, moved up to ninth before a subsequent caution but could make up only one position during a green-white-checkered-flag restart that took the race to Lap 137, three laps beyond its scheduled distance.

With Hornaday in pursuit and gaining ground, Benson crossed the finish line seventh and secured the championship by seven points.

As exciting as those final laps were, however, Benson said it was his entire body of work that was responsible for his first truck title and the first championship for Bill Davis Racing.

"Well, I can give you in 25 races the reason why we won the championship, because that's what it took," Benson said. "It took 25 races. It started at Daytona when we unloaded, ended when we loaded up (at Homestead), and it's every race. And we've had some good races, we've had some great races, we've had some mediocre races and we've had a lot of heartbreak with one engine blown. We had a couple tyres blown and wrecked. Every one of those is a decision or a result of us being here winning a championship.

"You know, like I say, it takes a whole year, and it's just a way ... cool deal here. I don't think people understand how much this means to me to win this, but not just for me, for Bill and Gail (Davis), everybody at Bill Davis Racing ... I'll remember this for many, many years to come."

Benson's assessment is apt. Throughout much of the season, he and Hornaday traded the championship lead, much as Hornaday had done with Mike Skinner the previous year, when Hornaday won his third title in the series.

After Hornaday won at Texas in June, the field was still tightly bunched, with Hornaday leading Matt Crafton by 45 points, Benson by 55, Todd Bodine by 65 and Rick Crawford and Jack Sprague by 71. The lead changed hands the following week at Michigan, where Benson seized the points lead with a second-place finish to Hornaday's 23rd.

Benson's third-place finish at Texas began a ten-race stretch during which he won four times - including consecutive victories at Kentucky, O'Reilly Raceway Park and Nashville - finished second twice, third twice and fourth once to pull away from everyone except Hornaday. The only hiccup in those ten races came at Memphis, where Benson blew an engine, finished 33rd and temporarily lost the points lead.

From that point on, the contest was too close to call. After Hornaday finished fifth at Las Vegas and Benson crashed out in 27th position, Benson's lead was a single point. Hornaday was up 39 points after running second at Talladega, but Benson scored a 104-point turnaround at Martinsville, winning the race after Hornaday ran out of fuel with three laps remaining and finished 29th.

After a runner-up finish at Atlanta, Hornaday picked up his sixth win of the season the next week at Texas, race #23 of 25, to narrow the lead to six points heading to Phoenix.

Notable not just for Benson's first championship, the series saw three straight first-time winners, starting with Matt Crafton, who picked up his first victory in the series after more than seven years of trying. Donny Lia followed with a win at Mansfield, and Scott Speed - blue toenails and all - took the chequered flag the following week at Dover.

Another first-time winner was Ryan Newman, Hornaday's teammate-for-a-day for Kevin Harvick Inc. at Atlanta. Newman won the race in his only start in the series. In retrospect, if Newman and runner-up Hornaday had switched finishing positions in that event, Hornaday would have been series champion.

Other season highlights included three wins from Kyle Busch; the debut of Randy Moss Motorsports, as the all-pro NFL wide receiver put the #81 truck on the track; and Colin Braun, 20, posting three top fives and eight top tens in winning the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News

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