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How Ricky Craven’s No. 32 from closest finish found a fitting resting place

As with any historic moment, plenty of artifacts exist from Ricky Craven’s final big-league NASCAR win. Where they all wound up 15 years later is a story in itself.

Foremost among the memorable pieces: the bright, Tide-sponsored PPI Motorsports No. 32 that Craven drove to victory March 16, 2003 at Darlington Raceway. The car — fittingly stamped as chassis No. 32 from team owner Cal Wells’ operation — remains notable as the last Pontiac to win in what’s now known as the NASCAR Cup Series. It’s also noteworthy for how it wound up in Craven’s hands and where it currently resides.

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“Cal Wells called me and said look, why don’t you come out for lunch,” Craven says. “This was after I had retired, and they basically had this car rebuilt for me as a retirement gift. And it is beautiful, just beautiful.”

Said Wells: “We really handled our separation like gentlemen. It was really important to me that he enjoy the fruits of that labor beyond any financial remuneration, but just that memento.”

The only problem with the pristine race car was that it sat behind closed doors for years. “I had it covered up at my building. Nobody was seeing it.”

Enter Winston Kelley, the executive director at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The two had a chance meeting at a Duke Energy shareholders meeting, just as the joint venture between NASCAR and the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority was taking shape.

“We sat down, and I said, ‘how are things coming with your project, the Hall of Fame?’ ” Craven recalled. “He said, ‘oh, it’s going great. It’s a lot of heavy lifting. It’s very complex.’ I said, ‘You know, I might have something you’d be interested in. I have the Darlington car that I won in, the closest finish.’ And his eyes lit up and he said, ‘really? Would you be willing to part with it?’ I said yeah, it’s a shame no one sees it. … It’s appropriate. It belongs there.”

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And that is how the NASCAR Hall of Fame received the first artifact officially donated to the stock-car shrine.

Craven, 51, wasn’t alone in deeming the No. 32 a fitting addition to the Heritage Speedway section on the Hall’s top floor. Craven was attending a morning function at the building’s grand opening in May 2010 when someone grabbed him from behind and said, “Boy, doesn’t that Tide car look good here?” That person was Jim France, NASCAR CEO and chairman.

“Very pragmatic, a very sincere person,” Craven said. “That stuck with me that he went out of his way to acknowledge that car being there.”

As for the other keepsakes from that special day, the winner’s trophy from the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 has had its own journey.

“We carried the trophy back to the bus, and it’s a beautiful trophy. It’s like a glass crystal and it’s set up on five pillars, and I don’t know what happened, but it just collapsed, it fell apart,” Craven said. “I called down — I can’t remember who was managing Darlington at the time — but I called down the next morning and told them the story and somebody drove it down and they repaired it and it’s lived happily ever after.”

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The trophy’s home now is in the North East Motor Sports Museum, run by broadcasting legend Dick Berggren in Craven’s native New England.

As for the items Craven kept for himself, he still has his fire suit from that day, and Darlington presented him with a portion of the start-finish line asphalt. But Craven says he doesn’t require physical reminders for such a memorable finish; those souvenirs, he’s happy to share.

“It’s appropriate that the trophy’s there for the New England fans to enjoy,” Craven said. “The car is here for all NASCAR and motorsports fans to enjoy, so there’s a little bit of Darlington spread out everywhere, I guess.”