In March 2003, Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch made history at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. Craven claimed his final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory by taking the checkered flag a scant 0.002 seconds ahead of Kurt Busch. It was the closest finish in NASCAR since the implementation of electronic scoring in 1993. On Tuesday, both Busch and Craven looked back at their historic finish 10 years ago during a NASCAR weekly teleconference. Below, is a transcript of the conversation:
Q. Ricky, the Darlington victory was your last Sprint Cup Series win. How does it rank amongst all your accomplishments in the sport?
RICKY CRAVEN: Well, I have to say that when I won, it was really all about winning at Darlington. It was absolutely that important, and the competitors that have competed at Darlington, they understand it’s different than anyplace we compete. It tests you in a way that other tracks don’t test you.
But to your point, the race has become much bigger to me than just the trophy. It wasn’t about on that day, it wasn’t about being a fan of mine, it wasn’t necessarily about being a fan of Kurt, it was really about being a fan of racing, because since I’ve retired, it seems as though it’s all that anybody wants to talk about when I cross paths with them.
What’s important to me, and maybe I hadn’t expressed it enough, but I want to express it right off the top, is Kurt and I, like most competitors, we test each other every week, every seven days, and it’s not that important to be friends. You know, as competitors, it’s just not that important. But this race, this one day, has definitely brought Kurt and I together as friends, and I think that’s kind of unique, and it needs to be acknowledged.
Q. 10 years is a long time, but if you remember back then, Darlington kind of had an iffy future in the sport. How much do you think that finish kind of reminded people of what the track was and the exciting races it could produce to helping along to where it is now? It seems a lot more stable and a regular Mother’s Day staple on the NASCAR lineup?
RICKY CRAVEN: I think that it is — it’s critical that we look at Darlington the same way that baseball looks at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, because geographically it might not be perfect. If you look at the design of the racetrack from an aerial view, it might not be perfect. But what I described earlier and the way that the track tests the driver, there’s not a driver that’s carried a NASCAR license that wouldn’t rank the track among the toughest that they’ve ever competed at. And that means something, and it’s important that the fans understand that, and I think that they’ve certainly gotten that message loud and clear because of the way the drivers approach that weekend.
If, for whatever reason, the sport lost Darlington, it would have lost one of its pillars. It’s not to say that the foundation of NASCAR would have been compromised, but there would have been a vacancy. I mean, there would have been an absence that every single competitor would have felt.
I’m not nearly bold enough to say that that one race was a turning point, but I am realistic enough to say that at the end of the day, people buy into a product because they want value or they want an experience, they want something that sticks with them. If they’re going to spend their hard-earned money, they want something that they can feel like they’ve invested in, and that’s what that race represents, I think.
KURT BUSCH: Our sport saw a tremendous amount of growth from the mid-’90s to the mid-2000s, and to have Darlington survive the storm, it shows its strength all on its own on how unique it is. And to be the Southern 500, it ranks more important than the other tracks that have fallen to the wayside. Even though Rockingham is close geographically, it put on spectacular races, North Wilkesboro, a track that not a lot of people know about, it put on great short track races that tested the drivers’ ability to save their tires and the tire management role.
Darlington, its first race, the winner was the Tortoise. He took the approach on just running laps and he wasn’t the fastest car but he had the least amount of pit stops.
Darlington is a challenge in so many ways, it’s unbelievable. And this weekend we’re going to have the Generation 6 car go for a qualifying lap around this track, and there’s going to be drivers talking about holding it wide open through turns 1 and 2. It’s going to be a phenomenal ride, and what type of track could produce this type of challenge? There is no other track. Darlington shows its strength, and the Lady in Black will always shine through.
Q. Kurt, I was just curious if you’ve looked at a lot of replays from the race at Talladega and your flip, and is there any — are you just a passenger once you get kind of on your side or is there anything you can do while you’re either flipping or atop Ryan’s car?
KURT BUSCH: I was in the Darlington frame of mind with this being the 10-year anniversary. Just typical, though. For your question, I got lucky that Ryan Newman was in the position he was in to save my car from multiple barrel rolls. When I reviewed the tape, I was in the mode of this barrel roll is going to last from Talladega to Georgia. I mean, it was going to be a long barrel roll. But Ryan Newman was in the right place at the right time to help me settle back onto the track and not be as big of a wreck as it could have been.
But, yes, I’m just an innocent bystander, wrong place at the wrong time. There’s nobody to blame. I can’t even blame NASCAR for it. It’s just when it’s a free-for-all like that at the end of the race, you have to expect bumping and grinding.
Q. Can you talk about just going to Darlington and also your IndyCar test this week that put maybe Talladega behind you?
KURT BUSCH: Yeah, it’s always tough when you wreck and go out in a blaze of glory like that. The only way to get back in the groove is jump back on your horse and go again. This week I have a unique opportunity to test with Andretti Autosport and drive at Indianapolis in the month of May in an IndyCar. This is an experience of a lifetime, and we’ll see what happens from Thursday. I’m really excited about it.
And then on Friday jumping in the car at Darlington to go hammer down, it’s going to be a fast-paced qualifying run, but then we have to focus on the full 400 miles and put ourselves in position at the end so that, yes, hopefully there’s a good show like it was with Craven and I 10 years ago, but I want to be on the .002 of the second side ahead this time and bring home the trophy for the Furniture Row guys.
Q. With David Ragan winning last week, there’s been a lot of talk about another small team coming through. It doesn’t happen very often, and in fact the last time it happened at a non-Superspeedway was at Darlington with the Furniture Row team. I wanted to ask both of you why don’t you think we see more often some of the smaller teams break through, especially at non-Superspeedways or non-road courses?
RICKY CRAVEN: Probably a lot of it has to do with economics. The same reason we never saw the Montreal Expos win the World Series. We haven’t seen Minnesota win one in a long time.
So when you see a team like the Florida Marlins win the World Series, a couple times, in fact, it’s an example or I guess a comparison to watching Regan Smith win at Darlington or Keselowski win at Talladega a few years ago and David Ragan winning last week. It’s extremely healthy for the sport.
I talked earlier about the value of leaving the racetrack and fans feeling like they got their money’s worth 10 years ago at Darlington, and I expect that people who left last week felt like they got what they paid for. It’s not that it would work every week, but the fact is if David Ragan and Regan Smith and perhaps me, if we represent the Montreal Expos in terms of our identity with a small team, then Jimmie Johnson represents the Yankees, and not everybody wants to see the Yankees win year after year.
That’s just my view on it. I can’t explain mechanically why it doesn’t happen more often, but certainly economically there’s a pretty clear explanation.
KURT BUSCH: You know, being with big teams and being with small teams, there’s certain tracks that tailor themselves to the whole field, and then there’s tracks that tailor themselves to how the engineering and the infrastructure of a team can outspend another team. The great equalizer is the restrictor plate.
Another step towards equalizing cars is putting them on a short track to get aerodynamics out of the mix, but a car just can’t necessarily show up and win at Martinsville anymore by having that short-track feel. You have to design the car lightweight, have all the weight low and to the left and have this tremendous amount of money and difference in that car.
So the core, though, of our schedule is still on the mile-and-a-halfs, Darlington, Dover, Phoenix, New Hampshire, you still have all these high-speed tracks that technology will buy you wins versus the good underdog stories.
Q. Kurt, if you were to win, is that a big team win or a little team win in your opinion?
KURT BUSCH: Well, in my mind this is a big team, and it would be a big team win. But in everybody else’s mind this team hasn’t deserved the respect, in a sense, of a Hendrick Motorsports or Gibbs or Penske Racing, and therefore it would be a small team win. But if you ask anybody that has knowledge within the sport, the budget that a Furniture Row is on is very different than a Front Row Motorsports.
Q. I was going to ask you, Kurt, with as well as you’ve driven at times at Darlington and Furniture Row’s win a couple years ago, you must have a good amount of confidence coming into this week that you guys will be able to do well here, and also as far as getting back to 10 years ago for both of you, is it just amazing that you both didn’t end up in the wall sometime during those final few laps when you think back on it?
KURT BUSCH: Yeah, I’m really pumped up about this weekend. Drivers can say that each week, but with Furniture Row’s win there, with my hunger to try to win at Darlington and get those .002 of a second back, it’s going to be a good weekend, I really feel it.
And the way that Ricky and I raced, it’s amazing we didn’t wreck each other, and just hand the win over to a third place running guy. That day it was Dave Blaney. To take the gloves off, I knew Ricky was going to catch me. I just knew it. I had power steering issues, and lap after lap he’s ticking away not two two-tenths to three-tenths, he’s ticking away a half a second quicker than us. And it was just, all right, if you can do math, you know he’s going to catch you with about two to go, three to go, and I’m like I don’t know what I’m going to do when he catches me. But he doesn’t know I’m going through all this hardship, so maybe I can catch him by surprise and at least juke him for a lap and a half.
RICKY CRAVEN: If you remember, Kurt actually did get in the wall. I didn’t expect him to race me into Turn 1 with a few laps to go, and I expected him to lift and do a cross-over, and as he said, I didn’t know what he was dealing with as far as power steering issues.
I think really, and I’ve seen this a lot, I didn’t watch it much during my career because as I said earlier, every seven days you’re racing. So regardless of how exciting the racing is or if you won, it’s on to the next event. But the life I’m in now where I do have time to reflect, it’s pretty clear that with two or three to go, we both made the decision that we’re going to win this race, and we went about it in different ways.
But in the end, it just came down to a few inches. You don’t script it. It’s not something that you plan for. It’s not something that, as much as I want to say that all my short track days back in New England prepared me for it, they didn’t. For the last few laps, I can tell you there were two guys that emptied the tank. And it’s the only reason, the only reason I can explain Kurt walking across the garage to join me in victory lane and celebrate is because he had emptied the tank, like I had. And, hell, at the end of the day, what is there to complain about? You did everything you could do. I mean, really, I think that’s what that race represents.
Q. Real quick, Kurt, you mentioned earlier taking the gloves off, and Darlington, that old-school feel that it still has being on the circuit. Kind of go back to that last few laps where you guys were just bumping and banging and just really seemed like that was defined what NASCAR has been for so long, and just talk about just that exciting finish and what it was like to be a part of.
KURT BUSCH: The way the track races at Darlington, it’s difficult to navigate it just even by yourself. And the cliché is race the racetrack, that’s where the definition came from, is you have to race the racetrack because it’s so difficult that you can’t pay attention to where the other drivers are, you just have to run your own race.
And with the inevitable coming to me of Ricky, having so much more speed than me at the end, it’s as if I went into that defensive short track mode, and doing that on a three-eighths mile Saturday night in a late model is just fine, but doing it at a 1.3 mile Superspeedway with a Cup car, maybe it’s not so acceptable. But, then again, there’s somebody that’s going to get a trophy and points and a check.
And it’s just amazing how you just go into that mode of I’ve got to win, and you throw out the whole speech and preaching that everybody has given you about how you’ve got to race the racetrack, otherwise the track will jump up and bite you. And it was if the Lady let us dance that day with her to get me and Craven beating each other up with the cars, and yet it produces a show that still stands today as one of the best finishes.
RICKY CRAVEN: What’s also apparent to me is that there have been a lot of other really, really, really exciting races, finishes, and sometimes people qualify a great finish as the closing laps, the leader getting bumped from behind, spinning, and the guy goes on to win a race. I’ve never heard anybody associate Kurt and my finish with that type of a race.
See, the problem with that type of a race, and you’ll see it again, you’ve seen it before, is when a driver who’s running second spins the driver in front of him, somebody got cheated. And they may not have — the people in the stands might not have gotten cheated, but somebody in the equation got cheated.
The great thing about Darlington, and it’s very apparent 10 years later, is that nobody got cheated, nobody. And I agree with Kurt that for whatever reason, the Lady in Black allowed us to race the way we did the last two laps, because typically you couldn’t do that on new tires. We did it on worn-out tires. I mean, we were 50 laps into a run. The tires were gone.
And what both of us should be most proud of is that we took each other right to the edge but we didn’t take each other out, and that really stands pretty tall with me.
KURT BUSCH: I agree with you. Usually there’s a winner and somebody that is just disgusted and frustrated because they have a wrecked car and they didn’t get second place, and that’s what we’ve all come to know as entertainment. This happened back in the days of the Roman gladiators. There’s somebody standing there in victory and there’s either a dead human a dead lion. Somebody had to take the fall. This day we had two winners it seemed like, and that’s what gave it such a unique twist at the end. Or maybe I’m just telling myself that because I keep losing this race by .002 of a second, and I’m never going to accept that, but it was a great race.
Q. You all talked about how you were able to get together in victory lane afterwards and respect each other for that, but it seems like especially in recent years at Darlington there hasn’t been maybe that show of respect after the race with you. What do you think has changed over the years as far as hard driving situations, and today do you think that drivers would congratulate each other in victory lane or would be trading bar bes like we’ve seen on occasion?
KURT BUSCH: I think that day it was just something special and it was two men that gave everything they were worth. If there was a loser, it was fine, because I gave it everything I had. I’ve been in some epic battles over the years, good and bad, indifferent. I’ve come out on top of a Nationwide race with Robby Gordon at Watkins Glen where it was definitely a gloves-off moment, and the two of us were able to shake hands and smile about it afterwards, not as much as what Craven and I did with each other.
But I’ve always had this sense of — or a feeling of when two drivers are toe to toe and they give it everything they’ve got that there’s that showmanship side. There’s the entertainment side that is valued in our sport, sometimes more so than the actual competition side.
But usually it’s the competition that bleeds through, and two guys are upset with each other and NASCAR drivers are like elephants; we don’t forget.
It just depends on the situations, but more times than not, at the end of the day, I’ve got respect for the guy that I beat or that beat me, and it was just a genuine, honest competition.
RICKY CRAVEN: I think that you’ve got to have that — this sport desperately needs the drivers to show emotion and show their personalities. I think it’s critical. And we’ve gotten a lot of that over the years.
Now, it comes in different forms. Sometimes it’s two drivers grabbing ahold of each other and sometimes rolling around on the ground like we saw from the Allisons and Cale Yarborough, and sometimes it’s the element of surprise. When people see what they saw at Darlington and then they see Kurt walking toward me, and I have to admit there was an element of concern. I didn’t know how I was going to be greeted. But Kurt grabbed ahold of my hand, we shook hands, and I could give you all sorts of analogies, but honestly, as far as racing goes, it was as close to — this is really going to seem out there — but it was as close to a schoolyard basketball game or a schoolyard kickball game when you’re a kid. It’s as close as it gets, because everybody dreams as a kid of swinging — being in that position to swing for the fence and win the game with one swing of the bat, and you do that, you rehearse that as a kid playing sports.
But then when recess is over, when the game is over and you’ve got to head back into class, you usually go in arm in arm or laughing, prodding one another, and that’s really what it was that day. I said it, and I was sincere, the race has definitely brought Kurt and I together. He’s been very gracious. But it’s real. It’s real.
– Photo courtesy of NASCAR