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It Was Craven vs. Busch In A Finish Too Wild To Tame

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, May 8 2009
        

Ricky Craven has inside position and a couple of inches on Kurt Busch as they hit the finish line at Darlington in 2003. And the crowd goes wild. (Photo courtesy of Darlington Raceway)

Ricky Craven has inside position and a couple of inches on Kurt Busch as they hit the finish line at Darlington in 2003. And the crowd goes wild. (Photo courtesy of Darlington Raceway)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

If you were a NASCAR fan in 2003, if you were one of those lunatics whom the straight world looked down upon with a roll of the eyes because you enjoyed watching loud, dirty cars go around in circles for hours on end and then could not wait until the next weekend to do it all over again, then you remember Darlington, 2003.

And whether you were on the La-Z-Boy in front of the set or sitting in the grandstands inadvertently spitting hot-dog chunks on the folks in front of you at the track that day, you sure as heck-fire remember Ricky Craven and his door-banging, wall-scraping mad dash to the checkered flag.

Which is kind of interesting, because what Ricky Craven remembers most from that day in March six years ago is you.

While that finish, in which he beat Kurt Busch by .002 seconds, may have made your day or even weeks, it made Craven’s life. Thanks, he said, to race fans.

“I’ve passed out hundreds, probably thousands, of pictures and posters and prints of that finish,” Craven said Thursday. “And I’m just fascinated by the crowd. I’m looking at every single one of them standing up. And, and in Victory Lane it was, ‘this is what you dream of’.”

It’s been called the greatest finish ever in a NASCAR race. It has been voted that by experts and reaffirmed that by fan balloting.

It featured two drivers who were not the Michael Jordans or Babe Ruths or Dale Earnhardts of their sport.

What it did feature was what auto racing in America is all about – noise and speed and debris, all flowing from two cars that are just barely hanging together and two drivers who will not be able to live with themselves if they back off even one inch over the final five miles of the race.

Craven and Busch, making history and memories.

“It wasn’t about me and Kurt,” Craven said. “It was a lot more about NASCAR and it was a lot more about getting your money’s worth.”

The images of the closing laps of the race are all over the place on the internet. Anybody with a laptop and high-speed can watch as the two hacked and elbowed each other as they headed for the finish line. You can listen to Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds get intimately involved verbally peeing on their shoes –  as the race headed to the big finish.

But what was it like inside the cars the final quarter mile?

Only two people know that. One of them described it Thursday.

“He’s running as hard as he can,” Craven said. “The track is the governor, the walls are what prevent you from going faster. I had been stronger than him all day long in Turns 3 and 4. That was my only chance. I had play to that strength. I got into Turn 3 comfortably, rotated the car and got back to the gas really aggressive.

“At the same time that I did that, almost simultaneously, I saw Kurt got wheel spin and his car kicked out a little bit and I said to myself, this is perfect because he’s either going to have to lift, or at the very least he doesn’t have the traction I have and that allowed me to pull alongside of him.

“I don’t think he lifted. I know I didn’t lift. We just fought for the same piece of race track from Turn 4 to the start/finish line.”

Craven won by inches. Quite literally, by inches as the noses of the two beaten-up cars crossed the line seemingly in tandem no matter how slowly the tape is played.

It was not just the cars which were beaten up. The men, too, were dented.

“That final lap, he and I worked in that final lap harder than you would in an entire race. That particular run, I think, was on 50-plus-lap tires. And at Darlington then, before they repaved it, those tires were shot. Our cars were sliding around anyway, so here we were trying to pass one another on worn-out tires at the ‘Track Too Tough To Tame’. It was a recipe for disaster.”

What it turned out not to be was a recipe for lasting success.

The victory at Darlington turned out to be the final victory for him in Sprint Cup. And it turned out to be the high point of a career that had been hyper bright when he signed to drive for Rick Hendrick in 1997, but then turned so bleak after a concussion robbed him of his best years and, ultimately, his dream ride.

After the Darlington victory, the hope for Craven was that it would relaunch his career. Sadly, it didn’t.

“I sit here today, I’m 42 years old and I’m retired from racing and I’m working for ESPN and I’m having a blast with my kids, three of ‘em. And I say, you know, I wanted to win 20 races. I expected to win more races and I didn’t. But I didn’t expect to get hurt. I didn’t expect to have to work so hard to get a second chance as I did to get that first chance.

“But I’m thankful I got that second chance because I can sit here today talking with you at 42 and say, you know, I won. Rather than complain that I didn’t win as many as I expected to, I can say I won. And I can appreciate that I won at two places that have a lot of history, Martinsville and Darlington and I’m good with it. I really am.”

What Craven is not good with is the contention that Craven vs. Busch was the best finish ever.

For him, personally, that took place a couple decades before. It took place at Daytona and featured his favorite driver, Richard Petty.

It was 1976 and Craven was 10 years old and watching TV. Petty was racing David Pearson for the win when they crashed on the last lap and came to rest in the grass in the front stretch. Pearson refired and headed to the checkered flag.

Petty could not get his engine going. His crew ran out onto the grass and began to push.

At the Craven house in Maine, Ricky felt the pain.

“I wished I could have crawled through the TV, ” Craven said. “I would have helped push Petty across the finish line. So from my seat, it (2003 at Darlington) was not the best finish ever.”

But, he said, “It was one of the greatest for me because it has affected everything I do.”

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, May 8 2009
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  • Leon Hammack says:

    As I was reliving the finish in my head while reading this article, I disagree with Ricky Craven! It is the greatest NASCAR finish so far in its 60 year history, hands down! I still get excited reading about that Darlington race in 2003! A Hollywood writer couldn’t have written a better screenplay for a movie’s ending!!