DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) -- Although Johnny Benson's choice of race tracks might be a bit of a surprise, his goal for the Southern 500 isn't.
"I like Darlington," he said of NASCAR's toughest track. "Most people hate the place, but I can pick worse tracks."
The 1.366-mile Darlington Raceway, which he will attack Sunday from the outside of the front row, is a place where only the greats of the NASCAR generally conduct post-race celebrations. A 37-year-old driver who's never won a Winston Cup race doesn't seem a logical fit.
But this season everything about Benson -- whose team nearly went to the sidelines until sponsorship appeared last month -- seems illogical. Bolstered by unexpected success that has him a stunning 14th in the points, he's undeterred by a record of never winning in 150 career starts.
"We still feel we can win a race," he said. "That's the goal, to make that happen."
Although he has three career victories, two this year, polesitter Jeremy Mayfield also is thinking about winning. Unlike Benson, who's also driven to finish in the top 15, Mayfield will take in a win-or-nothing approach.
Because of some bad results early in the season, a 150-point loss due to a fuel irregularity and a concussion that forced him to miss two races, he's 22nd in the standings. He also might be the most relaxed of the 43 drivers chasing the winner's share of a $2.6 million purse on the 50th anniversary of the Labor Day weekend classic.
"When you're in a points race and you're trying to stay in the top 10 or top five, there's a lot of pressure and you have to start cutting back a bit and be more conservative," Mayfield said. "We like running hard to win, and that's what we're going to do."
A sense of Darlington's history also helps motivate Mayfield, who wants to put his name among those of the greats who beat "The Lady in Black," NASCAR's first paved superspeedway.
"You look back and see who has won races here: Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, and the list goes on," Mayfield said.
He recalls Yarborough, his former car owner and the winner of a record five Southern 500s, telling him Darlington and its big race can make a career.
"He said, 'If you win the Southern 500, you can win anywhere,' " Mayfield said. "That tradition alone speaks for itself. It would mean more to me probably that any race I've ever won."
For Benson, any victory would be the most important. But don't expect him to put his Pontiac into a racelong battle with Mayfield's Ford.
Benson knows "the track too tough to tame," isn't beaten by a driver bent on racing the field.
"You've got to race the racetrack instead of everybody," he said. "Hopefully, we can accomplish that."
Still, Benson knows nothing beats starting on the front row.
"Track position means everything," he said.
That can't be good news for points leader Bobby Labonte, who starts 37th after getting a major scare when the throttle on his Pontiac stuck during practice Friday. He went hard in to the wall, but was not seriously injured.
NASCAR is reeling from the deaths this year of Busch Series driver Adam Petty and Winston Cupper Kenny Irwin in crashes at New Hampshire International Speedway. Stuck throttles are believed to be the cause of those crashes.
"I guess that's the way it is," Labonte said of his poor starting position. "Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose."
The winner, at least at the start, is series champion Dale Jarrett, a two-time Darlington winner who goes from the ninth spot on the grid. A difference of 28 positions at the finish would reduce Labonte's 91-point lead to just five.
Ward Burton, a winner at Darlington in March, figures to provide competition from the start. But, like Benson, he plans to be a bit conservative with his Pontiac.
"I think the main thing is we just need to stay real focused and get a competitive finish out of it," Burton said. "Whether we're going to have the car to win or not, we've got 450 miles to get to that point, and then we'll decide."
If that's the case, he might wind up in another late-race battle with his brother, Jeff, who beat him last year in the only 1-2 finish by siblings in the history of the event. Jeff Burton starts 35th, but makes a habit of coming from far back.
He swept both rain-shortened Darlington events last year, the latter ending Jeff Gordon's four-year winning streak in the Southern 500.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.