Were you watching on that March Sunday as racing history was made? Were you on the edge of your seat? Did you think one or both of the drivers wouldn’t make it to the finish as neither one backed down an inch? Who were you rooting for to pull out the win: the brash youngster who already had the reputation of being hotheaded and aggressive but could drive a car almost beyond the ragged edge, or the beleaguered veteran who never quite seemed to live up to his potential? Were you holding your breath as they made the final lap?
If you were watching that epic battle at Darlington, you’re ten years older now than you were that day when Ricky Craven beat Kurt Busch to the line by mere inches and a fraction of a second that stands as the closest margin of victory NASCAR has seen. It was one for the ages, one of those races you can see on the highlight reel and never get tired of. And it was ten years ago.
In 2003, NASCAR’s landscape was changing and changing fast, but that day in March, fans witnessed a race that hearkened back to the old days of the sport. It wouldn’t be much longer until they would be longing for NASCAR’s traditions, but nobody knew yet that just one year later, Darlington’s traditional races would be yanked out from under their very noses. They just looked forward to coming back again later in the year to see more of the magic.
In March 2003, Kurt Busch was a 24-year-old racer whose star was on the rise, as was his reputation for being outspoken out of the car and—depending who you asked—both brilliant and overaggressive (some might even have said dirty from time to time) in it. He wasn’t afraid to mix it up with the sport’s veterans. Entering his third full season in what was then the Winston Cup Series, Busch already had four wins in NASCAR’s top division. A week after being denied number five at Darlington, he’d take it at Bristol, going on to win four races in 2003. Busch was not yet a Sprint Cup champion; it would be nearly two years after his battle with Craven that he’d win the 2004 title under a brand-new points system called the Chase.
Ricky Craven was entering what would be his last full season in the Cup Series in 2003; he’d run a partial schedule in 2004 but would never have another day like March 16, 2003. Craven had come into the series almost a decade earlier, spending two years with an underfunded Larry Hedrick organization before being picked up by Rick Hendrick, a car owner whose place as a winning owner was already being cemented, in 1997. Then, before his career really had the chance to take off, it was nearly ended in a practice crash at Texas Motor Speedway. Craven fought post-concussion syndrome for the next two seasons, and was released from Hendrick Motorsports. He won at Martinsville in 2001 for Cal Wells’ upstart organization … the same ride he’d take to Victory Lane one more time on that day in Darlington.
In 2003, Darlington Raceway hosted two Sprint Cup (then Winston Cup) Series races, one of which was the venerated Southern 500, a bear of a race run during the heat of the day at the end of a South Carolina Summer. The race had once been second only to the Daytona 500 in prestige (it was later usurped by the Brickyard 400 as NASCAR and the media hyped that race to ridiculous proportions), and was one of a handful of races that every driver wanted to win. Nobody (except maybe NASCAR) knew in March 2003 that the Southern 500 as fans knew it would take place just one more time and then be lost to the history books. The track would host two races for the last time in 2004, losing the coveted Labor Day race to California Speedway, a track steeped in no tradition at all compared to the Lady in Black. What had been the sport’s oldest race was wiped off the schedule. Terry Labonte won that last Southern 500, bookending, with Craven, a year of popular victories at the track known by all for being too tough to tame.
Looking back at that race, that timeless, ageless classic, could anyone have predicted what lay ahead? Probably not. Certainly the loss of the sport’s oldest tradition is one that fans have still not recovered from and likely never will unless the race is restored to the place many would call rightful— a blistering first Sunday in September.
In NASCAR 2003:
- Just three of the active, full-time champions in the sport today had won a title. Jeff Gordon had four championships while Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart each had one.
- Matt Kenseth would join that list at the end of the year.
- Jack Roush won his first Cup title as an owner.
- There were nine different winners in the first nine races, including Craven’s Darlington gem.
- Bobby Labonte, Michael Waltrip, Robby Gordon, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott, and Craven scored their last Cup Series victories.
- Greg Biffle got his first Cup win.
- Jamie McMurray would win Rookie of the Year honors…a year after his first win.
- Ryan Newman won a series-high eight races.
- The Cup Series raced twice at both Darlington and Rockingham.
Ten years later, and the sport isn’t the same for anyone involved in that race in March 2003.
Kurt Busch, now nearly 35, is a veteran driver, a champion driver. He still has the reputation for being hotheaded and overaggressive, and that reputation has cost him rides in the sport’s top organizations, including the seat at Roush Fenway where he nearly won that day in Darlington and where he won the title the next year. He’s currently with Furniture Row Racing, an underfunded team where his talent is undeniable, but the equipment doesn’t match. Has he burned too many bridges to contend for another title? Perhaps.
Ricky Craven was, even after his pair of Cup wins, considered damaged goods after a head injury, and ran his last Cup race in 2004. He ran a year in the Truck Series, but never was able to live up to the potential the concussion robbed him of. His loss is race fans’ gain, though, as Craven is now a popular analyst with ESPN. Always a thinking man’s driver, Craven is able to use his knowledge of the sport each week on television.
The Lady in Black lost her most precious jewel in 2003 and now hosts a single race—you’ll see it this weekend—called the Southern 500, though longtime fans know the name is a sham and that the real Southern 500 is now just another storied piece of NASCAR’s past. Though a repave made the track easier (many would say too easy) on tires and race teams, the Lady is still mean and unpredictable. Last year, she took the chance at a milestone victory from one driver and gave it instead to his teammate, denying Jeff Gordon the poetic justice of winning the 200th race for Hendrick Motorsports, where Gordon holds nearly half of those wins himself. She also sparked an angry move on pit road that would eventually lead to a one-race suspension for Kurt Busch (yes, indeed, he’s still volatile). Not unlike a grand old lady trying to hang on to what’s left of the family fortune, Darlington stands proud as one of the last links to the sport’s past, but that past is slipping further and further behind with each passing day. She still shines at times, though perhaps never quite as brightly as she did that day in 2003.
Were you watching on that Sunday as two drivers raced toward NASCAR immortality? Are you watching still for NASCAR’s grand old Lady to deliver another perfect moment in time?
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