If you had to describe no. 10 Valvoline Pontiac driver Johnny Benson's 2002 Daytona 500 in a single word it would be this: survival. Or maybe it should be two words: survival and exhilaration. And if you needed to add a third word to survival and exhilaration it might have to be surprised because Benson was the most surprised guy at the famous highbanks late Sunday afternoon.

Survival because Benson overcame extensive sheet metal damage suffered in a fiery 21-car accident on lap 139, about a half-dozen pitstops, then several more accidents in a race that saw less than half of the 43-car field running at the end.

But you could also describe it as exhilaration because Benson hung on all afternoon even during a wild finish that saw the battered and bruised Valvoline Pontiac cross the finish line in 10th - the best Pontiac and third best General Motors finisher.

And the Michigan veteran was the most surprised person of the 200,000 racers and fans gathered to watch the Superbowl of Stock Car Racing. He thought his chances for a good finishes went away earlier in the afternoon.

"I still can't believe what happened today," exclaimed Benson as he walked from the car after the race. "That's all about the crew today. When we wrecked I figured we might last another ten or so laps let alone finishing 10th. We might not get as much attention as the higher finishers today but what we did was a heck of an accomplishment."

Crew chief James Ince told the team over the radio seconds after the chequered flag fell that Sunday's performance was more than just finishing tenth when it should have finished about 30th at the most important race of the year:

"Guys you worked hard today, but what you did today is what championship teams do and this is something we have to remember the rest of the year."

Benson began the race in 39th and slowly worked his way up through field climbing to 21st by lap 22 then moved as high as 12th several laps later. Benson, like most of the field, worked with his team through the early going adjusting the handling on the Valvoline Pontiac.

"We were tight like a lot of guys but it wasn't awful," he said. "We had planned to keep working on it and have it figured out by the end of the race." At lap 139, Benson was in the middle of the pack when Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon collided going into the first turn triggering a massive accident. Several cars were destroyed and at least two caught fire but there were no serious injuries reported to the ten drivers that made trips to the infield care center.

Benson thought he was going to be fine as he dodged the spinning cars inside the cloud of tire smoke. But he wasn't as lucky as he thought he was."I thought I had cleared it then all of a sudden I got hit in side then got hit in the left side then in the right side. I think I got hit again," Benson said.

The day seemed over but Benson droved the crumpled Valvoline Pontiac to the pits where Ince the crew began some heavy-duty sheet metal repair. While Ince used the electric saw on the right front of the damaged car, Car chief Gary Putnam used a baseball bat to push the sheet metal away from the left rear wheel well.

Benson made numerous pit stops as he remained on the lead lap. He rejoined the race just as the field took the green flag. He was half a lap down but Jimmie Johnson's accident allowed him to make up all the lost ground.

As the race wore on Benson hung onto the lead lap but at the back of the pack. His sheet metal damage left the Valvoline Pontiac with less than ideal aerodynamics. It appeared he would garner at respectable if not surprising top-20 finish.

Then the race got weird. Seven cars wrecked on a restart with less than six laps left in race. NASCAR decided to stop the race for 19 minutes. Race leader Sterling Marlin climbed from his car as the cars were stopped on the backstretch to pull a fender from a tyre. That move caused NASCAR to send Marlin to the back of the field when the race restarted. Jeff Gordon was penalized for pitting too early to repair damage on his car and also sent to the back of the pack.

Between the wrecks and the penalties Benson had moved to ninth. "I couldn't believe what was going on. If the race kept going I was beginning to think there wouldn't be anyone left to finish. There was no way I could keep those guys behind me for too long but we were going to try."

The race restarted and Ward Burton held off Elliott Sadler for the victory. Benson gamely held his position although Marlin and Gordon slipped by during the final laps dropping him to 11th but Benson passed Dale Jarrett who spun in the tri-oval on the final lap to claim 10th.

Benson was relieved with the finish and said it was a good start to the new season. "We finished 28th here last year and four races later we were third in points, so we look at it as we are ahead of last year," said Benson whose finish Sunday surpassed his previous best 12th-place finish at the season-opening race in 2000.

"The Superspeedways are OK, but the 2002 championship will be decided at places like Rockingham and Darlington where we go the next couple of weeks. That's where this team really likes to race. Tenth at Daytona is good but we expect even better at Rockingham on Sunday."