DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Ricky Craven wasn’t sure what to expect at the Darlington Raceway starting line more than 20 years ago. By the end, he had his final NASCAR Cup Series victory, a lifelong friend in racing rival Kurt Busch and a place in the sport’s history.
Darlington will celebrate NASCAR’s 75th anniversary at the Goodyear 400 on Sunday during the series’ annual throwback weekend. The track “Too Tough To Tame” will also remember the edge-of-your-seat race from 2003 when Craven finished 0.002 seconds ahead of Busch in what remains the closest finish in NASCAR history.
“It was a while after I hung up my helmet until I realized the impact that race had on my life,” Craven recalled this week. “No matter where I go people associate me with that moment, that race.”
And for good reason.
Craven and future NASCAR champ Busch were one-two at Darlington on March 16, 2003, for the final few laps. Craven briefly swept in front of Busch with two laps left, but the Roush Racing driver crossed over to regain the lead.
Craven made a final move for the front, going low out of the final turn when the cars locked against each other and went across the line with fans, crews and both competitors wondering who earned the checkered flag.
Busch had a bad feeling he’d come up short.
“When we locked, I looked through his window net and I looked at my window net,” Busch said, “and thought, ‘Oh, man, he’s ahead of mine.’”
The cars uncoupled on the way to turns one and two before finally coming to a stop after the frenetic finish with spectators throughout the venue on their feet.
Timing confirmed Craven’s razor-thin win by 0.002 seconds, matched only by Jimmie Johnson’s victory over Clint Bowyer at Talledega in 2011.
“Did you ever?” FOX broadcaster Mike Joy said to the TV audience when it ended. “No, I never,” analyst and NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip responded.
Craven couldn’t get any messages over his headset and when he finally stopped his car, looked up at the scoring tower “and saw No. 32 at No. 1,” he said, chuckling. “That was my confirmation.”
Tyler Reddick was 7 years old and remembers watching the Craven-Busch finish — “As soon as my parents were OK with me watching racing and other sports on TV, it was NASCAR on Sundays,” he said — and knowing he’d seen something special.
“It’s one of the most iconic finishes that we have,” said Reddick, whose throwback Sunday is Busch’s No. 97 Sharpie car.
Craven was thrilled about his second — and what turned out to be his final — Cup Series win, but wasn’t sure if a dust-up with Busch, a quick-tempered youngster, was ahead,
Someone tapped Craven on the shoulder in victory lane and told him Busch was on his way. “He’s not going to be happy,” Craven remembered thinking.
When Busch arrived, he immediately stuck out his hand, hugged Craven and told him “that was incredible.”
The two became instant admirers and often celebrate their shared moment of NASCAR history. “We’ve cemented a friendship that is eternal,” said Craven, who left NASCAR racing in 2006.
Busch, a sure-fire NASCAR Hall of Famer with 34 career wins and the 2004 series title, stepped away from full-time driving after last season when the effects of a head injury in a Pocono crash made it impossible to compete. He’s currently a consultant for his last race team, 23XI.
Neither Craven nor Busch go very long without a race fan asking them about that Darlington finish.
“It’s like a high five,” Busch said. “It’s why we’re true race fans.”
The two are honorary starters for Sunday’s race — “Kurt will wave the green flag two-thousandths of a second after Ricky,” raceway president Kerry Tharp quipped — and will keep treasuring their moment.
“I’m going to tell the story two thousand times and when I tell the story the 2000th time,” Busch says, “I think I’m going to win it one day.”
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