Commentary

Darlington 2003 finish still resonates

Updated: May 10, 2013, 8:46 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

To properly respect a man's emotional position in a given moment, you must first know that man's emotional path to that moment. To know who he is is to know where he's been. And when a landmark moment is the culmination of years spent hurdling exhausting physical and emotional obstacles by filling the tank with doubter disbelief, it is often most special.

That is why to fully appreciate the magnitude of the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway -- very possibly the greatest finish in NASCAR history -- you must first have proper context on the winner's path to Victory Lane.

That path weaved from the heartless concrete wall in Turn 4 at Texas Motor Speedway to the emergency room at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, through the brutal physical and emotional pain of post-concussion syndrome and past the black abyss of forgotten promise, over by the sunrise of new opportunity and atop the euphoric apex of Sprint Cup Victory Lane.

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And there, after that long and winding journey, you reach the destination: March 16, 2003, 30 laps to go at one of the most-respected racing venues America has to offer.

"It was a prize fight, like a couple of boxers fighting to the bell -- ding, ding, ding," Kurt Busch said. "When there's a trophy and a check on the line, the rules are off."

That spring, Ricky Craven was some 70 races into his second career as a Sprint Cup driver, a humbled man who periodically showed flashes of the driving brilliance that years earlier had landed him a marquee ride within the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut. In the mid-'90s, while Jeff Gordon was winning races and championships at a record clip, Craven was often the faster driver on the speed chart.

He seemed a legitimate threat to Gordon's championship march, until early April 1997. During opening practice for the Interstate Batteries 500, Craven was in the middle of a blazing fast run at Texas Motor Speedway when he wrecked off of Turn 4 -- a crash so violent it sidelined him for two weeks initially and ultimately derailed his career for several years due to lingering post-concussion symptoms.

"He was an extremely intelligent driver," said Toyota Racing Development vice president Andy Graves, who in 1997 was Craven's crew chief at HMS. "He was a rising star, like Steve Park, and was going to be one of the top drivers in the sport. He was never short on confidence, which I loved about him. You could never get him down before the injury."

After the injury was a different story. Craven was as low as he'd ever been.

"It was one of two times in my 25-year career that I was so preoccupied -- lying in intensive care -- and hurt so bad that I couldn't care less to ever race a lap again," Craven said. "As you heal, that diminishes and eventually goes away completely."

He admits today that the Texas wreck took the youthful ragged edge out of his repertoire. But he knew he could still win. He just needed an opportunity that was worthy of his desire. In the minds of many, he was damaged goods. By 2001, he was fully healed and competitive again. He was ready for a full-time, legitimate comeback. He'd dabbled with start-up teams but never gained competitive traction until former open-wheel owner Cal Wells entered the stock car realm. When Wells hired Craven to drive the No. 32 Tide Pontiac, it was a new lease on a lost career.

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Getty ImagesRicky Craven in the Tide Pontiac managed to beat Kurt Busch by a mere four inches at Darlington in 2003

Craven paid back the gesture quickly, winning his first career Cup race at Martinsville Speedway in October 2001 in thrilling fashion, outdueling Dale Jarrett in a last-lap drag race to the checkered flag. It was a wonderful moment. Jarrett had won Martinsville in the spring and was drooling for a sweep. And when Craven beat Jarrett, it was a validation of his talent and ability. It was validation of his conviction. It was validation of his passion.

Not unlike Dale Earnhardt's win in the 1998 Daytona 500, when every man from every crew lined pit road to congratulate him, crewmen from most every team came out to shake his hand as he eased down pit lane toward Victory Lane. In an often-ruthless business, that very rarely happens.

Craven would say that day that he spent a couple years floating around Moosehead Lake in his native Maine, uncertain he would ever return to the show. He thanked team owner Larry Hedrick for bringing him to Cup. And he thanked Hendrick for advancing him in it. And then he said, "Now I'm a winner. I've come full circle." It remains the greatest accomplishment of his career.

But it is not how he'll be remembered. It is not his legacy. His legacy would be written 16 months later.

Back to March 2003. As the Cup Series rolled into Darlington Raceway, Craven felt very confident of his chances to perform well. The year prior, he earned the pole position and was the fastest thing on site before he was collected in a wreck between Park and Stacy Compton. His day was ruined. He was devastated. For an hour and a half as his crew worked feverishly to return him to the track, he sat strapped into the car. He refused to get out.

Craven and his team brought that same car back, determined to avenge the previous year's frustration. They practiced badly. He qualified 31st. On Saturday evening, Craven's crew chief, Scott Miller (who now heads up Michael Waltrip Racing's competition department), visited Craven in his motorhome to gauge the driver's thoughts.

"He said, 'Give me some good news,' " Craven says now, pride bursting from his verbal cadence. "He was concerned. I knew that if this was a stereotypical Darlington race -- if the tires fall off the way they always do -- we were in great shape. I told them that [car] would run all day long, and he said, 'OK, call me if you need me.' "

The following day, Craven remembers being passed by just one car -- driven by Tony Stewart -- some five laps into the race. He moved forward methodically throughout the day until he reached the top 10 with roughly 100 laps to go. Following the final pit stop, with some 50 laps remaining, he was in the top five and inching forward. If the race stayed green, he was confident he had a chance. His car was built for the long run.

Just ahead of Craven were Jeff Gordon and Elliott Sadler, who were battling for the lead, and Busch, who had endured a horrible weekend of blown engines -- and subsequently participated in minimal practice -- to find himself in contention. What no one else knew about Busch's No. 97 Ford was that the power steering was failing him, and he'd have a wrestling match on his hands momentarily.

With 30 or so laps to go, Gordon and Sadler went door-to-door into Turn 1 -- a no-no at Darlington because it swipes momentum. They fell victim to the "Lady In Black." They began to race one another instead of the racetrack. The track won.

"Oh, man … This sticks in my head like it happened an hour ago," Sadler said. "Jeff's leading and I'm second, and we're gone. Gone! My team was telling me, 'OK, Elliott, this is Jeff Gordon. He doesn't make mistakes. He's a champion. You'll have to pass him.' So I'm following his line, trying to learn but trying to pass him, too. Then, all the sudden, that son of a gun gets high off Turn 2 and flat-sides his car. And here I am in his tire tracks. As soon as he hit the wall, I did the exact same thing! We tore our car up pretty bad.

"I remember cars passing us, not the particular cars of Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven. But I remember most saying to myself, 'I cannot believe this just happened. I had this race won.' And now, every time I watch that replay -- I just told my wife this week -- I had that race won. That shouldn't even be a replay. It should be me and Jeff racing for the win. Even now I'm thinking, 'Damn it!' "

Noticing Gordon and Sadler's mistake, Busch took advantage.

"This was back when we actually had long green-flag runs," Busch laughs now, "and I got the lead with a three-wide pass at Darlington -- which is unheard of to start with. I passed on the bottom side. Jeff Gordon and Elliott Sadler ran through Turn 1 and 2 side-by-side and I just kept my foot on the floor and passed both of them on the low side, three-wide. And right there I said, 'I gotta go -- right now.' "

And he did. Busch built a healthy lead as he worked through the power-steering failure. He had a top-5 car. Not a winning car. Meanwhile, Craven exits Turn 2 and sees Busch entering Turn 3. An entire straightaway separates them. But Craven is much faster and gains huge chunks of time with each passing lap. He played to his strength -- Turn 3 and 4 -- and drove as hard a 20-lap segment as he'd ever driven.

It was right now. Because right now might just be forever.

Craven and Busch explain the dynamics of the finish well, the intensity of the moment a decade later every bit as palpable in their tone as the moment when it happened.

Busch: "To be in this position at the end of the day is just beyond belief -- to have a shot at winning, let alone be leading by two or three seconds. So, 15 to go, spotter says, 'Craven's coming.' I'm doing the math in my head -- they're saying he's gaining six-tenths a lap. And I'm like, 'I don't have that much time.' I knew he was going to catch me before the white flag. And in my mind Craven doesn't know that I have a problem with the power steering, and at a track like this you're supposed to yield to another guy and give each other room. But this is for the win. There's less than five to go. So the normal protocol of yielding to another guy and just racing the racetrack is out the window. And I have no power steering. So I'm wrestling that thing for all it's worth and he's coming -- in a hurry. And I'm doing more driving in the mirror than I am out the windshield, and when he got to me, he caught me off Turn 4, we were neck and neck going down the front straightaway. At that point, somebody's got to decide if he's going to yield or not. He expected me to yield. I didn't. This was my only chance to hold him back, right now, throwing off his rhythm. And it didn't turn out all that great. In Turn 1, he slid into us and we pounded the fence. Maybe I expected him to lift out of the gas just a little bit. We're on old tires and there's no grace period whatsoever. So I jack him up in the middle of 1 and 2. It was aggressive. So aggressive …"

Craven: "Hearing my spotter and hearing my crew chief say, 'That was two-tenths, three-tenths faster that lap. A couple of those laps were crazy in terms of [time] differential. So I know I'm catching him. So with three laps to go, I caught him off of Turn 4 and really didn't want to. I didn't have an urgency. I didn't have a good enough run to clear him off the front stretch, but I couldn't lift. I went into Turn 3 with what I thought was an advantage. I expected him to lift entering Turn 1. He didn't lift. You can't got two-wide into Turn 1 on old tires. You won't survive it. And damn! He's racing me! I hold the wheel into the car [to turn it], and the back busts loose and I have to turn into it. So I turn right and slam into him, and pound him into the wall. He retaliates and immediately gets back in gas and jacks me up -- the back tires are off the ground. He does what he needs to do and I completely understand that and have absolutely no problem with it. He goes on and I say, 'S---! I got one shot at this! I better not screw this up!' My strength was Turn 3 and 4. Coming off Turn 2 -- which is a very tricky part of the racetrack -- you can't slide a notebook between my right-rear quarter panel and the wall. I love that. That's one of the elements of speed -- use up every bit of racetrack on exit. So I do catch him and I go into Turn 3 on the final lap, and I actually have this technique with my right foot where I would actually go back to the accelerator before I got all the way into the corner. And what that did was help the car get over on the right rear and help the transition where the car starts to turn. So I went back to what I'd been doing all day, and I'm leaving it up against the wall. And then I saw him -- he'd been keeping a tighter line, like, if you're going to beat me you have to beat me on the high side. Then I saw the back of his car bust loose."

That was the moment. Busch had opened the door. Craven kicked it down.

[+] EnlargeCraven passes Busch
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesRicky Craven saw his opening against Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003 and went full-throttle for it on the low line.

Busch: "He caught us taking the white, but decided he should just follow me going into Turn 1, which I felt was a swell idea. And I knew was pretty good in 1 and 2, but I had no game plan for 3 and 4. That's where he was gaining all of his time. That's where I was wrestling really hard with the steering wheel. I couldn't turn it hard enough. And I wanted to go low in 3 and 4 to mess up his line -- he'd been getting good runs on the bottom. I couldn't hold the car low. I washed up high and the car wiggled on me. It took me a while to get the steering straight. That one little bobble allowed him to pull up alongside me. From there, it was an epic drag race to the end."

Craven: "The moment I saw his car bust loose, I turned left and went to the low lane -- wide open, full throttle, even though I hadn't been full-throttle off Turn 4 for the last 20 laps to be sure I didn't burn the rear tires off the car. Now it's a race to the start/finish line. I'm full-throttle. And you can watch it 100 times and I can't tell you if I slid into him or he turned left into me or we just connected, but we made contact and neither of us lifted. I heard both engines, just screaming. And at that point it's 100 percent reaction. I can't replay it over my mind, but I can tell you that everything I did from Turn 4 to the start/finish line was the cumulative effect of everything I'd done in racing my whole life. Just wheeling it. Just wheeling that thing. Feeling the rear tires break loose and then grab a little bit of the track and try to turn left to get away from him. But we're locked together for the last few hundred yards. And … it just … it worked out that I got there first."

Two-thousandths of a second -- that was the margin separating them. It is the equivalent of four inches at Darlington. Ricky Craven had beaten Kurt Busch by the length of his index finger. As they struggled to right their cars after the collision, neither man knew who won. Craven's in-car radio was a garbled mess of traffic, five or six crewmen all trying to talk at once. So he looked to his left to find the scoring pylon.

"It read: '32. 97,' " Craven said. "YES!"

He screams as if he is back in that car, back in that moment. And he laughs a joyous laugh.

"It was that moment where you're at recess and you dream of hitting the walk-off home run. It was that kind of a day. That feeling. It was nothing like winning my first race. But it was not like any other win I ever had. The primary reason it was that valuable is because it was Darlington. The fact that I won the closest race in the history of the sport didn't register. The fact that everyone in the place was standing didn't register. The fact that everyone got their money's worth -- everyone has their own story about those last two laps -- didn't register. What registered to me that day was that I won at Darlington.

"I'm telling you, there's a certain satisfaction to this day for a kid who grew up in New England to win at Darlington. I guarantee you if you ask Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon and any guys who've been around a long time, they'll echo that."

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Jamie Squire/Getty ImageRicky Craven's crew was as proud of their winning moment as Craven was.

The aftermath for Craven was sweet, yet analytical. He is a goal-setter. He writes things down. He writes everything down. He never entered a season without established goals and clear objectives. When he entered Cup racing in 1995, the goal was to win at least 10 races. To him just then, there was validation in double-digit victories. Before Darlington, he felt that chance may have passed him by. Darlington changed that.

"Before Darlington, I had given up the best part of my career; I absolutely had missed on the sweet spot of not just my age and my skills and my opportunity with Hendrick, I also gave up years trying to battle back from injury. So when I won at Darlington and I'm standing around with the team behind the transporter, not telling anyone, just basking in the glory of it all, I'm thinking, 'If I can win here, I can absolutely get to 10. There's no question in my mind, after winning this today, I can get eight more of these.' That's the reaction I had to winning at Darlington.

"That's the residual of winning there. Now, sitting here today, on my back porch, I'm saying, 'I'm OK with it all.' I won two races. I didn't win 10. I won two. But I won Darlington. I didn't win a championship, which is ultimately what everybody strives for. I didn't win a Daytona 500. I didn't win at the Brickyard. But there's a certain level of satisfaction that comes with having won at Darlington."

After the race, standing in Victory Lane with his family, Craven looked up and saw Busch walking toward him, alone. He wasn't sure what to think. Was Busch mad? Was he coming to confront him about the physical finish? Was there about to be a throwdown? Busch was known to be fiery, and Craven is a redhead. He was ready to throw down.

If that were to happen, he didn't want his children to see it. So he walked briskly to meet Busch halfway. Busch extended his hand. Craven shook it. It was the ultimate display of sportsmanship.

"It's like the Wild West! Who's gonna draw first!" Craven laughs. "I had no idea how it was going to go. We celebrated that together. And since then, it's been a great experience. It's not always how you act in life, but most often how you react. What Kurt did went a long way with me, and it's why we're connected today.

"He could have reacted 100 different ways. And to some degree there was justification for the guy who loses a race to be disappointed and to express that disappointment, and we've seen him express a level of frustration that we don't always understand. And in this case, it was a 180.

"Kurt gets so much [criticism] for the things he doesn't do so well, and he doesn't get enough credit for the things he does do well. And this was an example of that. He has recounted this race ad nauseum, and always does it with enthusiasm."

Busch wouldn't have it any other way. He has a deep appreciation for the sport's history, and he knew immediately he'd just become part of it.

"I knew we just did something special. You don't see that in our sport every day," Busch said. "I wasn't upset by finishing second. It was so unique. Something just clicked in my mind that said, 'Yep. This is special.' He outdueled me and he beat me, and I wanted to congratulate him. It was as heads-up as it could have been, other than my power steering.

"It's a great finish. That day and time didn't change the sport like the 1979 Daytona 500, but it's a nice mural on the wall to show everything that this sport is about, how two drivers gave everything they have for a simple Darlington trophy."

Busch considers it a top-five moment in his career, behind only his first victory, his first championship and his Charlotte sweep in May 2010. He's not sure where the car he drove that day is located. But as far as he's concerned, both his and Craven's cars should be displayed in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

And Craven? Darlington is his defining moment, the realization and validation of the journey to the moment.

"Before I got hurt at Texas, I was fast. Everything was right until I got hurt," he said. "And when I came back, I was a much better driver, but I truly believe I lost a percent or two. It's all of those senses physiologically. You can overcome a percentage of it. But if you're weak in one area you have to be 110 percent in another area to balance it out. So when I got a chance with Cal and Tide, I knew I had to capitalize on my strengths. That's what I felt I did in those four years at the end of my career.

"Everybody -- I mean, everybody -- asks, 'Why did you retire so early?' Here today and gone. The reason I was gone is because the tank was empty. At 40 years of age, I was done. Absolutely done. I wasn't going to do any better than what I had done. There is a level of comfort or satisfaction that I came back and I won Martinsville and Darlington, and I'm absolutely at peace with my career.

"But if I hadn't come back and won, there would be a void in my life. There just would. As lucky a man as I am to have three healthy, outstanding children and a great wife, there' s just something hard-wired about competitors that doesn't allow them to dismiss success or failure. And without a Cup win, I would have failed. I can promise you I would have felt that way."

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