Kids Cravens Inspiration

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – You don’t need to know much more about Ricky Craven than this: While riding around after taking the checkered flag Monday afternoon in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Craven was thinking about Riley Diane and Richard Everett Craven.

No, he wasn’t thinking about the excruciating 19-year journey he took to get his first NASCAR Winston Cup victory. He didn’t think about the hard times, the bad wrecks or the rehabilitation from a head injury. He didn’t think about Cal Wells, his car owner who gave him a big break before the 2001 season.

Nope, he thought about his kids. While his racing career had been on a downturn, his personal life was full of joy in the form of nine-year-old Riley and five-year-old Everett.

“The last two years I have had the absolute greatest time of my life with my kids,” Craven said. “I’ve saved money because I’ve been racing a long time, and we have a log home up in the mountains of Maine. I’ll be honest. I was on vacation. I went up and said, ‘Hey, if I’m gonna be miserable I’m gonna be miserable up here where nobody has to see me, and I’m gonna be with my kids.’

“I’ve done great things. I did things with my kids that I’m not gonna be able to do for 10 more years until I retire. So I thought about my kids.”

Riley and Richard weren’t around Monday to celebrate with dad. There were more important things, like school, and though Riley went “kicking and screaming,” Craven’s wife Cathleen took them home.

That was about the only bad part about Monday’s race. Otherwise, it was a perfect day for Craven, a guy who has fought back from all sort of adversity to become a Winston Cup winner.

Craven was a rising star in Winston Cup five years ago, getting close to winning with Larry Hedrick’s team a season after earning the Rookie of the Year award. In 1997, he joined Rick Hendrick’s powerful team as a teammate to Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte.

Then came a crash at Texas Motor Speedway that year, when he suffered a concussion and had to sit out two races. Four races into the 1998 season, Craven got out of the car again, this time with post-concussion syndrome.

Suddenly, a promising career was in question. Some wondered if Craven was ever going to be right again. He returned to Hendrick Motorsports midway through ’98, but that didn’t last. Craven was gone, unemployed.

And he nearly disappeared. Sure, he was in Winston Cup racing, but only barely. He drove for Scott Barbour and Hal Hicks in 1999 without so much as a whiff of a Top 10. The 2000 season with Hicks’ Midwest Transit team was even more frustrating.

“It was miserable. It wasn’t my idea of racing, but it allowed me to be visible,” Craven said of the No. 50 team. “I remember being in Maine with my family, and my wife said, ‘Hey, tough times don’t last. Tough people do, and you’re tough, so just carry on.’”

Craven carried on, all right, landing a ride with Wells’ fledgling PPI Motorsports team. Craven replaced Scott Pruett, a former Indy-car driver, and joined rookie Andy Houston at PPI.

Though he was back full-time, many still wondered whether Craven would even win a race – Craven among them.

“If you want to speak in terms of extremes, there was a percentage of time spent feeling sorry for myself and then you look at this side of things and it’s like I’m on top of the world,” Craven said. “I mean, this is the greatest day in my life professionally. This is exactly what I’ve worked all my life for, and what makes it so awesome is that you question yourself. You say, ‘Am I gonna get that chance? Am I gonna win that race?’

“Today, I can sit here and say that the NASCAR Winston Cup record book from here on out is gonna have my name listed with some of the greatest. Some of them have three digits, but I’m still there. That’s what I’ve wanted all my life.”

So you can understand why Craven showed so much emotion Monday at Martinsville. This was no ordinary victory.

“I’m not ashamed to tell you that I think I ran two laps with my visor down because I couldn’t talk,” Craven said. “When we crossed the start-finish line and (crew chief) Mike (Beam) said, ‘You won the race,’ time stopped. I’m not kidding you. That’s never happened in my life, but time stopped.”

But it only happened for an instant. Soon, thoughts of his children entered his mind. He remembered Riley asking him about Jeff Gordon and why he won so much. Craven didn’t really have an answer.

But then, Riley would also ask her dad if he won.

“I called my little girl at school today and told her I won,” Craven said.

Life, as always, is good with the Cravens, but now it’s even better.

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