Prelude to the finish
As much as Busch wanted to scoot away, the image of Craven’s bright No. 32 loomed larger and larger in his mirror. With two laps left, Craven finally was in position to mount his first attempt at the lead, barreling into a narrow opening that closed quickly with both cars coming together.
Craven: I 100 percent expected that Kurt would do the cross-over, which Dale Earnhardt had made famous in that corner. What I underestimated is that he’s just not going to … his will to win was peaking and that’s pretty much how Kurt’s always raced. I’ve always admired that. So it wasn’t until I got all the way into the corner that I realized, “Oh, he’s not going to lift.”
Busch: At the same time, I went, “He put it in there.”
Craven: And then you see the car break loose because I’m not able to release the wheel and move up to the wall, back to driving the race track and not racing each other. And I collected Kurt and knocked him into the wall, and then he came back and I don’t know how you did it on old, worn-out tires, I don’t know how you didn’t dump me, but you just lifted me enough to say, “All right. Shame on you,” and you went on by. And I said, all right, I’ve got one more chance at this if I’m lucky.
Busch: When I was going down the front straightaway, I’m looking in the mirror and he went to my left, and I’m like there’s no way he’s going to go into Turn 1 and try to make the pass there. He’s going to lift and then he’s going to try to squirt through on the short section between Turn 2, and we went down and pounded the fence and I’m like, “Oh, it’s on.”
Craven: You hit hard.
Busch: It’s on. And then I got to your rear bumper and I said, “You know, no, I just need to move you. I don’t need to dump you because I don’t need a yellow to come out, I just need to move you.” … And I hit it perfect. There’s a lot of times when drivers time a retaliation improperly, and it just worked out perfect where I lifted you up and then I ran again. I tried to go run and hide again.
Wells: Rick just had a little bit of tire left. So he planned it very, very well. He knew he was just going to have one more shot and he waited, waited, waited, and then he was able to cut under him at that last moment.
Craven: Those last two laps, you wouldn’t ordinarily hear me say this, but I’m proud of those last two laps because I emptied the tank. I gave everything I had. And if you go back and watch coming off of Turn 3, you couldn’t have gotten your hand between the right side of the car and the wall. You were laboring even harder because you had the power steering issue and there was no quit.
I’m proud of those last two laps because I emptied the tank. I gave everything I had.
Busch: It was a 12-round bout and it was the last minute and we were just putting everything … it was like we did take the gloves off and went after it. It was everything we had, but it was with respect.
Craven: It was. It’s why the race has stood the test of time, and 15 years later people still celebrate it because we took other as far as we can …
Busch: … at a track that you’re not supposed to be doing that on.
PHOTOS: Kurt Busch through the years
The final lap
The initial contact was far from the end of it. Craven kept Busch in sight, building up for one final challenge in the last lap. With Craven to the low side through Turn 4 and Busch clinging to the high line, the two cars clashed together and scraped, both drivers fighting for control all while throttling toward the checkered flag.
McReynolds: I kept feeling either they’re just going to absolutely take each other out — and they were very close to doing that several times — or there were a couple times where Kurt got away from Ricky and I went, “OK, it’s over,” but they just were tenacious and never gave up on it. I will say that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen two guys race that hard for that long and not end up taking each other out.
Andrew Gurtis (President, Darlington Raceway, 2001-04): Craven was better through (Turns) 3 and 4, which is the narrow end of the track. On the final lap, Ricky did not try him in Turns 1 and 2. He waited until he was coming out of Turn 4 to come beside him. If you watch the video, they’re together. Ricky is leaning on him.
Craven: I swear I did not intend to slide up into Kurt.
Busch: No, I came down.
Craven: If you look at it a few times in different ways, it looks different each time from different angles.
Busch: That’s what’s cool about it. I came off (Turn 4) and that’s when I had to get that extra back on the wheel because the steering was getting so stiff. I didn’t get it back straight quick enough, and I just got into your door. Like I couldn’t steer away from you.
Craven: What’s really amazing is we didn’t lift.
Busch: We locked.
Craven: You can hear that. It’s a really cool sound to hear the engines almost like an airplane, how the props feather.
Busch: Yeah, the harmonics of it.
Craven: You can hear the engines elevating and lowering because the cars are getting light and settling back down.
Wells: When he came around and they got together, you could just hear the engines roar from both of them — both flat.
Gurtis: I was standing down in Victory Lane when the finish occurred. I heard the banging of cars and the squealing of tires and I saw smoke, and I really didn’t understand at the time what had happened — the .002 finish, margin of victory for Craven over Busch — until Craven had come down to Victory Lane.
Busch: It took forever from Turn 4 when we locked to get to the line. It was like time slowed down.
Craven: I remember every part of it. And I remember that I didn’t lift and I knew that, I felt like we were going to wreck. I guess by most measures, we did. We wrecked.
Both cars flashed under the flagstand in what resembled a dead heat. The result eventually became evident with instant replay, but to the naked eye in that moment, the final margin of .002 seconds was imperceptible.
Gurtis: The whole crowd was silent for a moment and then it went off.
Joy: We weren’t expecting a side-by-side finish or inches or a foot, but boy, it was pretty thrilling. And after it happened, I started to phrase the question, “Have you ever seen anything like that?” And Darrell just interrupted right in the middle and goes, “No, I’ve never!” And that became kind of a catchphrase from then on for close finishes.
Craven: It’s so funny because Kurt described to me how he discovered that he didn’t win, which was the same way I discovered I did win. The radios were canceling themselves out because everybody was on them hollering — the spotter, crew chief. Once I gathered the car and Kurt helped straighten me out, I put the window net down and saw the 32 posted first.
Busch: I had the same chaos: The radios squelching, everybody’s just talking. I just kept trying to look and find the scoring pylon and it had 32 above the 97. I was deflated for a second and then, I’m like, maybe they’re going to go to video.
McReynolds: The good thing is our scoring monitors were pretty modernized and you’ve got to be careful. It’s pretty darn accurate, but I guess we just had a classic case to be careful when it’s that close. … I think Mike and Darrell and I all looked at the scoring monitor but we were very hesitant to say until we got the confirmation from NASCAR. Look, we’re looking right down on it. The booth absolutely looks straight down on the start/finish line at Darlington, and there was no way physically with the eye as it was happening to say that Craven or Kurt Busch had won or if it was a dead tie.
Berggren: There was certainly uncertainty in Victory Lane. We didn’t know who’d won the race.
Craven: I have to admit, I watched the scoreboard all the way down the backstretch.
Busch: To see if they were going to move the numbers?
Craven: Yeah, yeah.
Busch: Then Fennig said, “We’re second.” That was when we’re about halfway down the back that I got the notification.
Wells: I looked up at the pylon … and there was the 32 at the top, and that’s when I knew we’d won it. Of course, the crowd went crazy and the crew went crazy.
VIDEO: Relive the final lap
The pendulum of emotions swung wildly after the finish, with the jubilation in the No. 32 pit stall and the dejection of the No. 97 crew. But post-race interviews with both Craven and Busch showed common sentiments, with a shared appreciation for the competitive pinnacle they had both reached.
Joy: Ricky is a very intense individual, analyzes every success and every non-success to a very fine point. Had he lost it, I think he would have taken it really hard. And in winning it, I know that it’s something he’s savored for the ages.
Berggren: I was a little surprised that it wasn’t a more chaotic Victory Lane than in fact it was. But I think Ricky was just totally drained that he led just that last lap, and that of that last lap, he led just a few feet. To have driven that hard at Darlington to wind up winning the race, I think it just took the energy right out of him.
Gurtis: You can tell that he had poured a lot into it, and that the race had taken a lot out of him and then there’s that rush of adrenaline and emotion of, holy cow, I won and it was under these circumstances with the very best of competition, meaning this is what NASCAR is all about. It’s beating and banging, it’s the race track, it’s the history, it’s the lore, it’s the build-up… . Ricky just drove the wheels off that car — side by side, frammin’ and bammin’ with Kurt Busch and comes out the victor, .002. All of that comes out. You ask about the emotion of Victory Lane. It was all that stuff bundled up in Ricky Craven.
I’m thinking to myself, ‘We’re going to have a hell of a fistfight here.’
Busch had burst into NASCAR’s big leagues as a fiery competitor who rarely backed away from confrontation, but his response was magnanimous in the face of a narrow defeat. For those who had not seen his gracious post-race TV interview on pit road, their reaction to Busch’s march to Victory Lane was full of tension.
Berggren: My most significant general memory of the day was doing the interview with Ricky Craven, and I look up and out of the corner of my eye, here comes Kurt Busch on his way into Victory Lane. And I’m thinking to myself, “We’re going to have a hell of a fistfight here.”
Gurtis: When Busch was coming up to him, he wasn’t sure if it was fight or flight.
Craven: So I only won two Cup races and the first one was at Martinsville on a Monday and my children weren’t there because their mom required them to be in school, which is wonderful. So they were in Victory Lane with me, which was priceless. I savored that, but I looked up and I saw Kurt coming across the garage and thought, “I don’t know how this is going to go.” And if we end up wrestling, I don’t want that in front of my kids, so I walked out of Victory Lane, and it was almost like the Wild West, we’re going toward each other, and at the last second, Kurt goes, “That was awesome!” And we just celebrated, hugged, and I think that was the beginning. The race obviously, that’s sort of the focal point, but in terms of the bond that I’ve had with Kurt, that was the beginning for me because I thought Kurt was a class act and a gentleman.
Busch: That’s what my heart told me, that we had done something special, but I didn’t know to the magnitude of what. That was just the true racer in me coming out, because there’s racers that we’ve raced with and flat-out dumped because we didn’t like the guy or the situation that they put us in and yeah, you want to fight, but that one there was special.
McReynolds: How could you not respect each other for what the two had just done? It’s rare back then and especially today that the guy who finishes second goes to Victory Lane and congratulates the winning driver, but I think that right there made the statement that Kurt knew what he and Ricky had just done.
Miller: I mean, there was certainly contact on both their parts. Neither one of them wanted to give an inch and didn’t, but they did it in a way where they didn’t take each other out, and fortunately it was one of the closest finishes in history, and I think they were both perfectly fine with how the end of that race went.
RELATED: Closest finishes in NASCAR history
Fennig: (Kurt) took it great. To sit down there and go win at Darlington, that’s special, or to even have a shot to win. He just took it, I was surprised how he took it, but he took it just like a gentleman. He knew he drove his tail off to do that.
Busch: I didn’t know that it was as big of a moment in the interview or at that time. I was defeated by a guy that outsmarted me and there was the respect side of it too, with just two true racers — a New England boy, a desert-Southwest guy — racing each other, and we threw everything and the kitchen sink at each other, but didn’t wreck each other, and I liked that. It was OK to lose because of the respect that we had for each other on the track.
McReynolds: Kurt was disappointed that he hadn’t won the race, but I think they both almost celebrated what they had just accomplished. It’s almost like they both knew this was going to be a race and a finish that we were going to be talking about for a long, long time.
Wells: It was pretty emotional. (Ricky had) worked his whole life to win at a place like Darlington.
WATCH: Craven, Busch 15 years later
Miller: Getting a win at that level of the sport is always an emotional experience. For guys that have won multiple times, I’m sure they get a little bit used to that, but when the wins don’t come quite as often and everything that Ricky had been through coming back in his career and all the rest, it was certainly an emotional day for him.
Busch: It was perfect. It’s the old nursery rhyme book, the tortoise versus the hare. The tortoise always ends up winning. … Did I just call you a turtle?
Craven: Most of my career, I was. But on that day, it all worked out.
Busch: The tortoise prevailed.
Craven: It was invaluable for me because I watched carefully as Kurt came into the sport. And one of the things that’s very apparent to me now in having been with ESPN for 12 years, I have a 20,000-foot view. The champions and the future champions of NASCAR have this relentless desire and they don’t apologize, and they don’t apologize for driving their heart out. And Kurt had that. I had it at an early age, but the fact of the matter is, I didn’t realize it then but my best years were behind me. I have this respect for Kurt, not just because of that day, but I’ve watched him grow and become the person he is, but he’s been very generous in reliving that last couple of laps. And I don’t know anybody that could be as good as he’s been about all this. It’s just remarkable to me how sincere you’ve been, how much you’ve embraced it and I really appreciate it.
Busch: It’s been really a true joy to tell the story, to race fans and to share the memory with you and the fun that we’ve had through it. In all honesty though, I’m going to tell it maybe 2,000 times and I’m going to gain those two-thousandths of a second by the time I’m on a rocking chair one day. Maybe I’ll win it. One day, maybe I’ll win that race.
• Dick Berggren retired from broadcasting in 2012 and is president of the North East Motor Sports Museum in Loudon, New Hampshire. Craven’s trophy from the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 is in the museum’s library.
• Larry McReynolds has served as an analyst for FOX Sports’ NASCAR broadcasting team since 2001. He has 23 wins as a crew chief in NASCAR’s premier series, including two triumphs in the Daytona 500 (1992, 1998).
• Mike Joy has served as the play-by-play voice of FOX Sports’ NASCAR telecasts since 2001. A charter member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame voting panel, Joy covered his 43rd Daytona Speedweeks in February.
• Andrew Gurtis is now Vice President of Operations at Daytona International Speedway. In the months that followed the classic Craven-Busch finish, Gurtis used highlights of their dash to the checkers as a prime marketing point for Darlington’s fall event. “What that led to was the first sellout for a Darlington race since the 1990s, and because of the number of seats we had put in that (Jim) Hunter had built, the largest crowd that had ever witnessed a race at Darlington for that final Bojangles’ Southern 500 at the time, which Terry Labonte won. We sold the last tickets that Labor Day on Sunday morning. Our ticket director, Norma Nesbitt, called me down to the ticket office and I watched the last pair of tickets go out the window for the Southern 500. Quite a sense of accomplishment. I don’t know that that would’ve occurred had Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch not had that finish in March.”
• Jimmy Fennig oversees Roush Fenway Racing’s superspeedway program, a group that prevailed in two of last year’s four restrictor-plate races with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. behind the wheel. He ended a 29-year career as a crew chief in 2014, having called 40 premier series victories from the pit box.
• Scott Miller is NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition in the sanctioning body’s Research & Development Center in Concord, North Carolina. He scored six wins as a crew chief in NASCAR’s premier series, his last with Richard Childress Racing and Clint Bowyer at Talladega Superspeedway in 2010.
• Cal Wells’ NASCAR operation ended after the 2006 season. He was later the Chief Operating Officer at Michael Waltrip Racing until 2011. Wells is now owner of LNGA Consulting, a Charlotte-based firm that counts Toyota Racing Development, Haas F1 and Furniture Row Racing among its clients. The company’s initials stand for Life’s Next Great Adventure.
• The record for closest finish in NASCAR’s national series competition fell in February, when Tyler Reddick edged teammate Elliott Sadler by .0004 seconds in the Xfinity Series opener at Daytona International Speedway. At that time, this project celebrating Darlington’s record-setting finish was well underway. “I think it adds to it because that’s what we all want to see,” Gurtis said, scuttling the notion that the 2003 finish — still the record for NASCAR’s top division — has lost any luster. “We all want to see drivers performing and at the end, see two guys just beating it out for the start/finish line. That’s the simplicity of racing. Whoever gets to that line first, that’s who wins. And sometimes, it’s a whisker.”
• The milestones from Darlington’s 2003 classic were plenty. Craven’s victory marked the last premier series win by a Pontiac. It was the first win as a crew chief for Scott Miller and the last of two NASCAR wins for Cal Wells. Several other drivers made milestone appearances, with Terry Labonte’s 750th career start, Bill Elliott’s 700th, Kyle Petty’s 650th, Dale Jarrett’s 500th and Jeff Burton’s 300th all in that race.
• The winning No. 32 car is currently in the Heritage Speedway collection on the top floor of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Wells gave the restored car to Craven, who then donated it to Executive Director Winston Kelley. A plaque lists it as the first artifact officially offered to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
• Kurt Busch is currently driver of the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Ford in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. After his Darlington defeat — his third runner-up finish in the first five races of 2003 — he won the following week at Bristol Motor Speedway. Busch won the premier series championship the following year.
• Ricky Craven competed in his last NASCAR race in 2006 and has been a motorsports analyst for ESPN since 2008. His victory at Darlington was the last of his career. Though replays and scoring monitors confirmed his win, Craven’s 11-year-old daughter Riley needed more convincing on the way home from Darlington that day. “She didn’t want to tell me. She’s just as cute as a button riding home, and she goes, ‘Dad … I don’t think you won that race.’ The pictures came out, I think the next day, and I showed Riley and said, ‘Riley, it’s official. We won.’ “