Cravens Moment In The Sun

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Pinch Ricky Craven, he must be dreaming.

To have the NASCAR Winston Cup Series finale at New Hampshire International Speedway – his “home” track - was just way too much to ask for.

Granted, Craven would rather the circumstances that surrounded this weekend’s activities not have come to fruition – i.e., the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11 that postponed the race from that weekend – but Craven said he’s going to have a lot of fun when the Winston Cup circuit comes calling on the “Magic Mile.”

“It’s pretty neat that we’re ending the Winston Cup season at New Hampshire,” said Craven, a native of nearby Newburg, Maine. “It’s so unusual I feel we should enjoy it because it’s not going to happen again.

“The circumstances that brought all of this together are very unfortunate, but NASCAR and the speedway were left with no choice but to add the race at the end of the schedule. It’s great, I’m gonna be having Thanksgiving dinner with my wife’s family the day before the race – five miles away. It’s kind of a little selfish, but it hasn’t affected us at all.”

Craven would probably love to see NASCAR make the Thanksgiving weekend an annual event in New Hampshire. But you won’t find many others who would.

“I'd be on my hands and knees pleading and praying that doesn't happen,” said newly-crowned Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon. “This season has been so long. The schedule is unbelievable. I don’t have many complaints, but if I do have one, it’s the schedule. I hope that if anything, they’re trying to cut back on the schedule, not add to it. They've already tried to help us by cutting back on the time at the track. I’ve been encouraged by that and hope it's a trend of the future.”

Following the terrorist attacks, NASCAR, like all major sports entities in the United States, decided to postpone that weekend’s activities, which included the Winston Cup New Hampshire 300.

But because there were no more open weekends on the schedule for the rest of the season, NASCAR was forced to hold the New Hampshire 300 this weekend, on Nov. 23, a week after the scheduled regular-season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

That set just fine with Craven, who’ll be enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday with family and won’t be faced with having to travel on that day.

Although the temperatures will be cold (expected highs in the upper 40s and lows in the 20s) on Friday for the one-day show (provided it doesn’t snow), this will be a moment in the sun for Craven. He returns to the New England area for the first time as a winner in the Winston Cup Series - after earning his first career triumph in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on Oct. 14.

“It’s always been great when I go back there because I have so many fans,” Craven said. “But it would be nice to have a warm reception under the circumstances. It’s home court for me. I don’t think I can compare it to anything else – there are no autograph sessions or no appearances that compare to it. This is an awesome event for me, whether it’s July, September or November.

“It’s going to be an exciting time. What I’m most happy about and most excited about is that New England fans can sort of savor the moment. This is an opportunity for them to see the season end at their track and it’s very unlikely to ever happen again.”

Many drivers have voiced their opinions – negatively – about the logistics of this Friday’s race. Because of the holiday, some would obviously rather be home with their families and not have to worry about racing the following day.

Not Craven. No way. The situation has turned out to be an ideal one for him.

“I’m perfectly fine with every bit of it,” said Craven, who won a pole at New Hampshire in the spring of 1998, when he was with the No. 25 team at Hendrick Motorsports. “I would rather have three days there, but I’m really looking forward to it. In the last month, I believe, the competitors have adjusted their attitude toward it.

“The first immediate response was an unfair response and I don’t think competitors should be judged on that because Thanksgiving is a very personal holiday. But the professional side of the drivers, car owners and crew members kicked in and realized that this is all different. This is how we make our living and we obviously have very little to complain about as it relates to the events of Sept. 11.”

Besides Craven, a couple of other Winston Cup personalities will have sort of a “homecoming” this weekend. Frank Stoddard, crew chief for Jeff Burton’s No. 99 Citgo Taurus, is a native of North Haverhill, N.H., a town located 110 miles from NHIS, Paul Andrews, crew chief for the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevy driven by Kenny Wallace, is from Bangor, Maine, and there are several others.

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