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Too Tough to Forget

(Editor’s note: This story was first published in March on NASCAR.com. … We’ve resurfaced it with the Bojangles’ Southern 500 running this weekend.)

Long before Tyler Reddick and Elliott Sadler put triple-zeros in the margin-of-victory column last month at Daytona, one NASCAR finish stood alone for paper-thin proximity.

Fifteen years later, it still stands out for its bustle, its drama and yes, those famed .002 seconds that determined a winner and second place.

Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch staged a classic stock car slugfest on a cloudy Sunday at Darlington Raceway, with Craven winning the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 in a side-by-side, fender-crunching sprint to the checkered flag 15 years ago this week. The frenzy of the final two laps — including that climactic home stretch — secured the event’s place in NASCAR lore.

With a decade and a half’s worth of memories for reflection, NASCAR.com talked to the principals from that day to relive the closest finish in the history of NASCAR’s top division. For this oral history, all subjects are listed with their roles on March 16, 2003, the day that forever linked an analytical veteran in Craven with both a bold, up-and-coming talent in Busch and the sport’s oldest superspeedway.

Setting the scene

When the 2003 NASCAR season dawned, 36-year-old Ricky Craven had settled into his third year with Cal Wells’ PPI Motorsports No. 32 ride. Their partnership — forged over a barbecue dinner before the 2001 season — followed a tumultuous five-year stretch that included Craven’s months-long battle with post-concussion symptoms, his departure from Hendrick Motorsports and a pair of seasons toiling for the underfunded SBIII Motorsports and Midwest Transit Racing teams.

Larry McReynolds (FOX Sports analyst): I think Ricky was kind of racing from year to year, and it’s like he just couldn’t find a permanent home that he could be with long-term, for whatever reason. I know he’d gotten hurt a little bit, so I think that certainly took a toll on him.

 
 

Cal Wells (team owner, PPI Motorsports No. 32 Pontiac): Ricky had had a couple of big whacks. He had driven for Hendrick and had some good results, but he also had some challenges. He was still learning the pressures of Cup and particularly driving for a championship-level organization like Hendrick. Then he got in a couple of big wrecks that rang his bell — Texas was a bad one, Talladega was a bad one. When we looked at all the talent available, I had some guys that were saying Ricky’s damaged goods, he’s had too many injuries. But Rick’s extraordinarily articulate, a very intelligent guy. He did a really good job of selling himself as far as that he was healthy, that he was competent and that he was going to get it done.

Ricky Craven entered the 2003 season with something to prove. | RacingOne

Dick Berggren (pit reporter, FOX Sports): It was a home. Ricky liked Cal Wells, and Wells liked him. I think everybody liked Cal Wells, quite honestly. He was just a decent guy, a good person and a through-and-through racer. Oh my God, a through-and-through racer, for sure.

The 2003 season also marked Craven’s first year with a new crew chief in Scott Miller, who now works in NASCAR’s Research & Development Center. Craven and Miller first clicked at a test session at Atlanta Motor Speedway, when a late-hour change of shocks salvaged an otherwise unremarkable outing. Darlington was only Miller’s 12th race as a big-league crew chief.

Ricky Craven (driver, PPI Motorsports No. 32 Pontiac): Scott is one of my favorite people, and he’s the guy that you want to leave work and just go have a beer with. He’s laid-back, he’s a genuine person, but he’s fiercely competitive. I think he was among the most underrated crew chiefs in the business. … It was never important for Scott to get credit, and that’s really sad because Scott deserves a lot of credit for me winning Darlington.

McReynolds: Scott was always one of my go-to guys because actually when I was at Richard Childress Racing on the No. 3 car, Scott was my shock specialist. Very smart guy, and Scott was very well rounded and another crew chief that had experience driving a race car. … They’re both really methodical.

Scott Miller (crew chief, PPI Motorsports No. 32 Pontiac): I had been working at RCR prior to that, and Cal Wells and Ricky kind of, it’s what always happens in racing — “Hey man, what’re you doing next year? You come over and work with us?” There was dialogue. I had worked for Cal prior to that, so I kind of knew that team and knew Ricky, so one thing led to another and ended up back over there at PPI as crew chief of the Tide car and the rest is sort of history. A lot of history since then, too.

PHOTOS: Ricky Craven through the years

Kurt Busch started 2003 fresh off a breakout season — his first four wins and a third-place result in the championship race — with Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 97 team. The 24-year-old hotshot from Las Vegas took a liking to Darlington early on, and had a steady veteran guide in crew chief Jimmy Fennig, a proven winner who was atop the pit box for Bobby Allison’s 1988 Daytona 500 triumph.

Jimmy Fennig (crew chief, Roush Racing No. 97 Ford): I believe I started with Kurt in ’02, and we got working together and got to know each other’s habits, what he wanted in a race car. And the talent that he did have, I needed to make sure I utilized it. So everything was starting to come together those next couple of years from there.

McReynolds: You see this a lot about Darlington: If a driver performs well there early, then normally they always run good there. If a driver goes there and struggles, a lot of times experience doesn’t help them any there. It’s just that unique of a race track. From the very beginning, especially Kurt, he just ran well there from Day 1.

But Craven also had an appreciation for Darlington’s well-worn surface and its history, even though he grew up well to its north as a native of Maine.

Wells: When Ricky first went there, he spent a lot of time there because he loved the classics — race tracks that have been around forever and a day. They were very special to him, and Darlington of course was one of the big ones at the time. A very famous track, and he grew a passion for it. David Pearson drove him around there for the very first time he ever went to the place, right up against the fence.

Berggren: Ricky Craven isn’t the only one who feels that way. There were and there are an awful lot of people that realize Darlington’s place in the history of NASCAR. To have built that thing and paved it the way they did, and the length of time that Darlington has been on the big-league schedule, to win there is a big, big deal. It was such a difficult race track to drive that if you could win at Darlington, you were pretty darn special.

Pre-race peril

Darlington’s challenges stand on their own merit, but the weekend set sail with an inauspicious start for several parties. Craven had won the pole for the 400-miler the previous year, but earned only the 31st starting position for the 2003 running. Busch fared better in qualifying, but an engine failure in practice meant he would drop to the rear of the field for the start.

Craven: We qualified 31st, the same car that I had won the pole with the year before. And the expectations were so high and everybody’s up in arms. Scott Miller came over to the bus after Happy Hour and he said, “Wow, that car just doesn’t slow down.” So I knew we had a piece, in spite of how poorly we qualified.

Miller: When you end up with a long-run car, certainly that was your plan, right? [laughs] That’s what we all wish for. I think, as I remember that whole weekend, we didn’t unload that good and kind of struggled throughout practice. … That weekend, I think was a struggle for us during practice, and it was one of those places where Ricky has always been really good.

Kurt Busch (driver, Roush Racing No. 97 Ford): We had a tough Saturday practice session. I know one engine blew up and then I don’t know if there was an oil line crossed or something, but I had minimal track time on Saturday. Darlington is an intimidating place, and this is only my fourth visit maybe. And I looked at Jimmy Fennig, which is the best guy to have in the garage area at that time. I said, “You know, I don’t have many laps here. What would you do at this point?” He goes, “I’d look to put a Mark Martin set-up in.”

Craven: Is that right?

Busch: That’s what he said, and I said, “I like that. I like Jeff Burton’s set-up, too, because Jeff’s been running strong.” We just took a marriage of Mark Martin’s set-up and Jeff Burton’s set-up, threw it in the car and that’s how I raced.

The race

Polesitter Elliott Sadler shared the front row with Ryan Newman for the start, but Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin led for the majority of the 293 laps. Meanwhile, Craven and Busch methodically worked their way into contention.

Wells: I think what’s always resonated has been the passion with which the entire team attacked the race. We didn’t qualify real well, and we’d sat on pole before. Ricky really had a propensity for tracks that struggled for grip. He was really, really good at tire management and not only extracting one lap out of a tire, but multiples by taking it by each little bit — kind of a Kevin Harvick approach.

Mike Joy (Play-by-play announcer, FOX Sports): It was very, very hard to find grip, so any gains that anybody got were very incremental. A car would gain on another car not by car-lengths in a lap, but by feet. And so it was really a little game of inchworm of getting up and getting closer and closer.

Kurt Busch entered the 2003 season young, confident and full of talent. | Getty Images

Wells: Once we got a head of steam going, we were pretty solid the rest of the day. We were able to keep ourselves somewhere near the front. One of the things that Rick did a good job of was keeping his distractions to a minimum from a stress perspective. In other words, he didn’t drive the car all tensed up, gritting his teeth and squeezing the steering wheel. He was very relaxed behind the wheel.

Busch’s rise toward the lead group was sharper, but the mid-race hurdles kept coming. Busch missed the tricky entrance to Darlington’s pit road during an exchange of green-flag stops with 164 to go, dropping him from eighth to 14th in the running order. But the more persistent concern was a power-steering issue that made an already demanding race track even more grueling.

Fennig: Everybody loses engines, they start at the back, but power steering is the big one. Scott can even tell you that the problem was it was a slow leak, so one lap he would have it, the next lap he wouldn’t. So you didn’t know when it was going to come on and off. And then throughout the race, he just completely lost it. This was, I’m thinking Lap 7, Lap 8 of this race and you had to be on your toes to wheel that car, and man, he did an excellent job of it.

McReynolds: We didn’t know it until fairly late in the race. At that point, Darrell (Waltrip, color analyst) was only about three years removed from the race car. He said, “Darlington’s a hard enough place to drive if you’ve got power steering.”

PHOTOS: Classic images from 2003 race

The race to the finish

Strong bids from Martin and Earnhardt Jr. each took a hit with extra pit stops to tighten lug nuts, and Gordon and Sadler dropped from contention after brushes with the outside wall, each earning the dreaded “Darlington Stripe.” But those scrapes occurred after Busch blitzed by both of them into the top spot, taking the lead for the first time with 24 laps remaining. Meanwhile, Craven lurked, benefiting from his masterful tire conservation and a long-run car that savored the closing 52 laps of green-flag racing to the finish.

That’s really what happened with a couple laps to go. I forgot all about the race track and hitting my marks and we started racing each other.

Craven: You know you did some things at Darlington that you just aren’t supposed … it’s a shame, but your pass three-wide going into (Turn 3), that gets lost because of the great finish.

Busch: Yes.

Craven: But you can’t do that. You can’t do what you did.

Busch: I went for it. I saw Jeff Gordon and Elliott Sadler going through Turn 2 side by side and I was about four car-lengths back and I said if they stay side by side, I’m not lifting till I get to 3. I just [snaps fingers] made that moment.

Craven: So I had Scott reading lap times to me with about 20 to go, and it was apparent that we were three to four tenths faster.

Ricky Craven stopped racing the track and started racing Kurt Busch over the final laps. | Getty Images

Wells: We were watching Ricky coming and he was so much faster than anyone else on the track because again, he’d saved his tires. Scott got the tire pressures right and the cross-weight right, their final adjustments just put the car in a groove, and Rick was just whistling. You could physically see it; you didn’t even have to use timing and scoring for it.

Fennig: I was thinking about it and I said, “This one isn’t too bad, we’re in pretty good shape,” and then I see Ricky coming and I said, “Whoa!”

Craven: That was all a product of the car and preserving tires, but I was worried about burning the tires off trying to catch you. One of the advantages of being the hunter rather than the hunted is that you can identify where the car you’re chasing is weak or having trouble. One of your liabilities when you’re leading is the damn mirror.

Busch: That mirror.

Craven: Right? This race track requires everything you have in terms of concentration. You know the old adage, you race the track. You race the track, and if you begin racing each other, you get punished for it. And that’s really what happened with a couple laps to go. I forgot all about the race track and hitting my marks and we started racing each other.

Wells: When it was time to start rolling and he could start smelling the opportunity with Kurt, we were just lucky that the race was as long as it was because it took every lap to get it done. Scott called a very good race, the pit crew was really outstanding that day, and it all delivered a result that allowed Ricky to extract the maximum out of his skillset. That’s what ultimately delivered the result. He just was not going to be denied.

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