Top Fives: 17
Top 10s: 41
At one time, NASCAR was thought of as a sport comprised mainly of drivers from the southeast. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, that began to change. Suddenly there was an influx of drivers from the modified and Busch North Series, including driver Ricky Craven. Craven began his career at Unity Raceway in Unity, Maine, where he won Rookie of the Year in 1982, following it up with a 12-win season that saw him earn track championship honors in 1983.
From there Ricky would dominate at several tracks in New England before competing in the American-Canadian Tour. Craven, born May 24, 1966, ironically shares a birthday with Muppet creator Frank Oz, the voice of Yoda from Star Wars who coined the mantra of “There is no ‘Try’; only ‘Do’,” something Craven has taken to heart.
In 1989 Ricky made the jump to NASCAR, joining the Busch Grand National North Series. After posting two wins in 1990 and winning Rookie of the Year, the most popular driver award twice, and the 1991 Busch Grand National North championship, Ricky traded Maine lobster for Southern grits and headed south to NASCAR country.
He continued his established pattern of success by capturing the Busch Rookie of the Year title followed by back-to-back second-place finishes in the Busch Grand National standings. After two wins, eight top fives and 16 top 10s in 1994, Ricky would move to the big time, driving the No. 41 Kodiak Monte Carlo for owner Larry Hedrick in Craven’s Winston Cup rookie season in 1995.
Things got off to a rocky start the first lap of the 1995 Miller Genuine Draft 400 at Dover, Del. Craven was spun in front of the field on the first lap, eliminating virtually the entire field. In an incident that made a plate-track junkyard look pale in comparison, only five cars finished the race on the lead lap.
Things were progressing nicely the next year as he won a pair of poles at Martinsville and Loudon. Then at Talladega, he came very close to exiting stage right, when Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon got together and triggered one of the most spectacular crashes ever, even by Talladega standards. Craven’s car was launched up against the wall and catchfence between turns 1 and 2, falling almost five stories back down onto the pavement below. Ricky was rattled, but escaped without serious injury. The race was halted for over an hour as crews repaired the catchfence.
1997 saw Craven land his dream shot with Hendrick Motorsports. Driving the No. 25 Budweiser Chevrolet, he was finally in a top-flight car with arguably the top team in the sport. Things got off on a good foot with a 1-2-3 photo-op finish for Hendrick Motorsports at the Daytona 500, and he followed it up the next week with a top-five finish at Rockingham. It appeared that Craven would finally be able to prove the potential that so many knew he had, but fate had other plans.
A pair of crashes at Atlanta and Darlington would sideline Craven with a severe concussion for the next two races. The remainder of the season was lukewarm with a smattering of top 10s among finishes mainly in the teens. In 1998 though, Craven acknowledged that he was suffering the ill effects of the concussions he suffered in the season prior. Unlike drivers in recent years who have forced themselves to come back against the wishes of doctors and their own better judgment, Craven took the time off needed to heal properly. Once your egg gets scrambled, it takes a while to get Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Craven returned in grand fashion to his “home” track at Loudon and set his Chevy on the pole, then led the first 13 laps. While the finish was not what he had hoped it would be, he was back in his car and picked up where he left off.
Or at least so he thought.
In the following races, Ricky was not running very well. Questions were raised about his fitness to continue on in the Budweiser Chevy, and he was shelved in exchange for Wally Dallenbach Jr. Dallenbach posted an eighth-place finish in his first start at Michigan. However, in the rest of the races ran that year, he performed no better than Craven had, in effect vindicating him.
In an ironic turn of events, Craven replaced another driver who had suffered bouts of closed head injuries when Ernie Irvan was seriously injured in his Busch car at the August Michigan event. He closed out the year with the Nelson Bowers’s team, which today is Ginn Racing.
For the next few years, Craven would have rides with teams that, to put it politely, were less than competitive. He got his second chance at success in 2001 when Cal Wells snagged the Tide sponsorship from another Ricky, as Rudd’s RPM race team closed up shop and he took over the historic No. 28 for Robert Yates Racing. First-year owner Wells, who had previously competed in CART, had his Cup team up and running in short order.
The team began to turn the corner the second half of the season, claiming the pole at Michigan and finishing second in the rain-shortened event. Rain would factor into his favor two months later at Martinsville. The race, ran on a Monday, was seen by few, and that is a shame. He did it the right way as he did in the modified days at the paperclip, leading the most laps en route to his first career victory. The last few laps were an epic door-to-door battle with Dale Jarrett, with Craven inching ahead at the stripe by only a couple of feet.
Craven’s next taste of success would come a year and a half later at Darlington in 2003. With Martin a straightaway head of the second-place machine, a caution flew, sending the field into the pits for new tires with only a handful of laps remaining. While the No. 6 team botched the pit stop, Craven’s team did not, and put their driver in position to win his second career race. As the laps wound down, Craven was stalking yet another Roush Ford, this one being the No. 97 Rubbermaid Ford driven by Kurt Busch.
Entering turn 3 on the final lap, Craven had held back just enough to get a run on Busch through the center of the corner. Busch slid high and rode the wall through turn 4, Craven steered his Pontiac Grand Prix to the bottom and drove up under Busch. As he drifted back up to complete the turn, both cars met, fender to fender, tire to tire, door handle to door handle. Both cars quivered violently back and forth, smoke wafting out of the front fenders as their drivers struggled to keep them pointed in a straight line coming to the checkered flag.
As they did, Craven’s No. 32 Pontiac’s nose was just pointy enough to edge across the finish line, .002 seconds ahead of Busch, the closest finish in NASCAR history. Craven led just one lap that day, but it was the one that counted. His cumulative career Nextel Cup margin of victory is less than 0.15 seconds.
To date, it is the last race Ricky Craven has won in Nextel Cup, and it’s hard to believe that it has been over four years since that defining moment. Many fans of this New England legend have their fingers crossed the win won’t be his last on tour, and that he’ll land in a Cup ride sometime in the near future.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.
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