Classic Darlington Finish Remembered


Ricky Craven (32) beat Kurt Busch by a mere two one-thousandths of a second in this classic Darlington finish from 2003. (Photo: ISC Archives)


Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven are reminiscing about their thrilling 2003 Darlington Raceway finish this week as the Sprint Cup Series readies for Saturday night’s Bojangles' Southern 500.

Busch and Craven capped off a race for the ages while running for the checkered flag 10 years ago at the legendary South Carolina track.  They raced side-by-side during the closing laps before Craven was able to edge ahead on the final circuit to win by a mere two one-thousandths of a second - the closest margin of victory since the inception of electronic timing and scoring in 2003.

For Craven, it was his last Sprint Cup Series victory before he would retire from the sport and eventually move into a broadcasting career with ESPN.  The popular New England native remembered how important it was to his career to just put his name in the record book as a Darlington winner.

"When I won, it was really all about winning at Darlington," said Craven.  "It was absolutely that important and those who have competed at Darlington understand it's different than any place (else) we compete.  It tests you in a way other tracks don't."

Busch agrees.

"Darlington is a challenge in so many ways, it's unbelievable," he said.  "This weekend, we're going to have the Generation-6 car go for a qualifying lap around that track, and there are going to be drivers talking about holding it wide open through Turns 1 and 2.

"It's going to be a phenomenal ride.  What other type of track could produce this kind of challenge?  There is no other.  Darlington shows its strength and 'The Lady in Black' will always shine through."

While the sport has gone through significant changes during NASCAR’s evolution, Darlington remains a constant.  Modifications to the schedule have moved the Southern 500 to its current May date from the traditional Labor Day Weekend slot it held for so many years.  But the historic significance of NASCAR’s original superspeedway remains.

"It's critical that we look at Darlington the same way baseball looks at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field because geographically, it might not be perfect," explains Craven.  "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 the track tests the driver, there's not a driver that's carried a NASCAR license who wouldn't rank the track among the toughest they've ever competed on.

"That means something and it's important that the fans understand that.  I think they've certainly gotten that message loud and clear because of the way the drivers approach this weekend."

Busch goes into Saturday night’s Bojangles' Southern 500 after a violent accident late in last weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.  While Ryan Newman, who flipped and landed on top of Busch’s car in the accident, has been critical of the track and restrictor-plate racing in general, Busch chalks it up as just part of the game at Talladega.

"Yes, I'm just an innocent bystander - wrong place at the wrong time," he said.  "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."

Busch sits 20th in the Sprint Cup Series standings and still believes his single-car Furniture Row Racing team can secure a post-season Chase berth.  That charge continues this weekend in Darlington, where Busch brings confidence but does feel as if he has one coming after being on the short end of the historic finish with Craven a decade ago.

"I'm really pumped up about this weekend," Busch said.  "Drivers can say that each week but with Furniture Row's win there (Regan Smith in 2011), with my hunger to try to win at Darlington and get those two thousandths of a second back, it's going to be a good weekend, I really feel it."

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