Historic piece of asphalt set to find new home

Ricky Craven makes the ceremonial first cut for removing the finish line at the Darlington Raceway under the supervision of paving operator Oscar Jones.
Ricky Craven makes the ceremonial first cut for removing the finish line at the Darlington Raceway under the supervision of paving operator Oscar Jones.

Now and forever, tradition will be Darlington Raceway's calling card. Stock-car racing's oldest super-speedway marries yesterday and tomorrow in a way other racing plants see only in their dreams.

Wednesday, with the track's repaving project hitting high gear, officials made sure to add to their collection of history. The start-finish line, scene of NASCAR's closest finish, will escape the wrecking ball and instead head to a special place in racing archives.

Ricky Craven, who played a leading role in that fender-banging, door-rattling jewel, returned to the scene to rekindle memories and be sure to get his piece of asphalt.

"A bottom-of-the-ninth-play-at-the-plate finish," he said, using a baseball analogy in describing his duel with Kurt Busch in Darlington's 2003 spring race.

Electronic timers said Craven nudged his Pontiac across the stripe two-thousandths of a second in front of Busch's Ford. Statisticians figured the margin of victory at two inches.

"Absolutely mind-boggling," track president Chris Browning said.

It was that, all right, and it was oh, so Darlington.

Tattered tires, worn cars

Darlington always offers a stern test, and winning there is a crowning achievement in a driver's career.

"I look at my career and see two wins; I had higher expectations than that," said Craven, the 1995 rookie of the year. "But in some ways, I would take two wins with one being at Darlington over 10 wins and none at Darlington."

He did not know he had secured his Darlington win until several seconds after the checkered flag. Chaos on his radio made communication impossible.

"The race ended here," he said, pointing to the start-finish line, "and I found out I had one (a victory) over there," pointing to the first and second turns. "I finally saw the scoreboard with 32 at the top."

The confusion is understandable. The cars had last pitted with about 50 laps remaining, and they went into the homestretch with tires tattered and cars worn.

"Those last laps were very unpredictable," Craven said. "When you go back and watch the tape, you identify things that you didn't think existed when you were (racing)."

He said he made a mistake with an attempt to pass Busch going into turn 1 in the final laps. He learned from that he would not get around Busch and decided the only way to win would be a sprint down the homestretch.

He did.

'It's a drag race.'

Busch maintained the lead on the final lap, but Craven remembers a strong run off turn 2 and flying down the back stretch.

"One thing that made the difference is Kurt got a wheel spin" in turn 3, Craven said. "I went back on the accelerator hard, turned left and got position underneath. Once you do that, it's pretty even and it's a drag race."

The best thing, Craven said, is neither driver wrecked the other in the battle that more nearly resembled a Saturday night bull-ring scrap than a super-speedway confrontation.

"The cars were used up; I got to victory lane with two flat tires," Craven said. "If the last-lap scenario had happened with two laps to go, whoever ran third (Dave Blaney) would have won. Neither Kurt's nor my car would have lasted."

Craven, who calls himself semi-retired, stays involved in racing with a radio show and Internet work. The best thing about being away from the track, he said, is being able to spend more quality time with his family.

Naturally, fans want to talk about the fabulous Darlington finish, and he always obliges. Pictures of the finish occupy a prominent place in his home.

"My son Richard looked at a picture taken from an angle not long ago and told me, 'Dad, I don't know if you won that race,' " Craven said. "I studied the picture and thought, maybe he's right.

"That's why I like the picture taken here (straight down the finish line) better. That's the one that confirms my victory."

The difference between the cars is so slight that Hollywood would scorn the plot and call for a more believable script. But the oh, so Darlington finish is true, and officials made sure its place in the track's lore will remain secure.