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Friday, May 2, 2003
After 10 races, Craven sits seventh

By Rupen Fofaria
Special to ESPN.com

It's May, one third of the Winston Cup season is complete and many of the familiar names are near the top of the leaderboard.

Four-time champ Jeff Gordon is up there. So is 2000 title winner Bobby Labonte. And many of the same names from last year's top 10, too, like Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

Ricky Craven
Ricky Craven currently sits seventh in the series standings.

And then there's the guy in the lucky No. 7 spot. But through his career one might call him one of the unluckiest drivers out there. Now, thanks to a new rig and a new outlook, he's a top-10 driver with 10 races down.

New England rejoice. We're talking about your native son, Ricky Craven: 2003 title contender.

How 'bout 'dem apples.

"I can't say I'm not surprised, but this is exactly what we were working for," said Cal Wells, owner of Craven's No. 32 Pontiac. "I felt like there were so many times that we were close, but it just wouldn't happen. This year, it just feels so different. This year, it all seems to be falling into place."

Craven entered NASCAR as a touted Busch Series driver. In fact, he won Rookie of Year honors in that series. When, in 1995, he did the same in Winston Cup, the label was planted. Craven was expected to achieve great things. Then it took him until 2001 to finally win a race.

In that time, Craven finished no higher than 19th in the points. In fact, he finished just 21st in 2001. The next year -- last season -- he finished 15th.

This year, with three top-five finishes and three other top-15s, he's up to seventh -- consistently staying among the top-10 for the first time in his career.

"It's been great," Craven said. "It's so nice to be running up front rather than playing catch-up all the time. ... I feel like I'm finally doing what I set out to do (eight) years ago."

Craven's success hasn't come flooding through in just one season. He's been working up to this point -- posting his first victory two years ago and matching the number of top-fives he had in the first six years of his career over the last two.

But, certainly, the change that occurred before this season has helped. With the switch from Ford to Pontiac this year, Craven finds himself with a lot more attention than he once enjoyed. Before, driving a Ford, he was sharing manufacturers with the likes of Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and the entire Roush Racing stable.

Needless to say, with only his first win coming in his last year with the manufacturer, he wasn't at the top of the totem pole. Among the Pontiac hierarchy, however, his stock is much higher.

With better equipment and support, Craven and the No. 32 squad are enjoying the best days in team history -- and they're only getting better.

"This is a great team and we're getting better and better, and gaining more and more momentum," Craven said.

If you ask Wells, however, he pins the success on Craven over the team or the manufacturer switch. Craven was the one with the celebrated talent coming into the sport -- Wells simply recognized that his talent was not lost. Craven was the one with the experience and savvy. Now, Craven's the one establishing credibility for the single-car team, and helping it vie for a title.

"This gets us closer," Wells said after Craven won earlier this year at Darlington Raceway -- the second victory for both Wells and Craven. "Rick is the one that hauls us along with him. He had the credibility as a great race car driver in NASCAR's highest formula. We just needed to back it up and we came so close so many times.

"Last year we were 10th on the laps led list, but we just couldn't close the deal. There were so many races - (like) Atlanta -- when I thought we'd get it done. And a number of tracks we've run on, too -- Dover, where we've been very, very strong, and (Darlington), where we've been strong.

Running how they've run this year "does certainly add some credibility. Now, both Ricky and I -- since we share the same numbers in the win column -- we need to keep working very, very hard together because neither of us will be anywhere close to satisfied with two wins. We're going to work very, very hard for more."

Rupen Fofaria covers NASCAR for The Raleigh News & Observer and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@newsobserver.com.