The Tale Of The First Closest-Ever NASCAR Finish In 2003

As you no doubt know by now, Jimmie Johnson’s .002-second victory over Clint Bowyer in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway tied the record for the closest finish in NASCAR history.

The mark was originally established in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway on March 18, 2003.

That race didn’t end with a gaggle of eight cars running in 2×2 drafts – heck, that style of racing is about as far removed from Darlington as it can be.

The final laps at the crusty old track consisted of two cars beating and banging on each other as their drivers desperately fought for an advantage – however small it might be.

At the checkered flag, Ricky Craven, driving a Pontiac and Kurt Busch, in a Ford, seemed to cross the finish line glued together. Few could tell who had won. Many thought it was a dead heat.

But television replays clearly showed that Craven, on the inside, had crossed the finish line ahead of Busch by fractions of an inch – or .002-second.

At the time it stood alone as the closest finish in NASCAR’s long history.

It remains the closest in Darlington’s history, which is littered with memorable finishes, achieved by some of NASCAR’s greatest drivers.

The historic Craven-Busch outcome was just one milestone reached at Darlington in the spring of 2003. The Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 was the speedway’s 100th NASCAR Winston Cup Series race.

Terry Labonte made his 750th career start, Bill Elliott his 700th, Kyle Petty his 650th, Dale Jarrett his 500th and for Jeff Burton, it was start No. 300.

Neither Craven nor Busch were anywhere near such longevity. Craven began racing full-time in Cup competition in 1995 with team owner Larry Hedrick, with whom he won the rookie of the year title.

Busch came onto the scene in 2000 as a Jack Roush protégé. He won four races in 2002 and was considered a rising star.

By 2003, Craven, on the other hand, was racing on borrowed time – although he didn’t know it.

In 1997, Craven, a Maine native, caught a huge break. He signed on with Hendrick Motorsports. In the season’s first race, the Daytona 500, Craven finished third behind winner Jeff Gordon and runnerup Labonte – both teammates.

It was a one-two-three Hendrick sweep.

For Craven, things looked very promising, indeed.

But fate dealt him a cruel blow.

During practice for the inaugural Interstate Batteries 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Craven crashed hard into the wall. He sustained a concussion and missed the next two races.

He returned to win the Winston Open at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.

But the side effects of his injury would not go away. They grew so severe in 1998 that Craven was re-evaluated and declared a victim of post-concussion syndrome.

He missed most of the season. When he did return he competed in just four more races for Hendrick before he was released.

For the next couple of seasons Craven raced, unspectacularly, for second-tier teams.

Since most organizations wouldn’t take a chance on a driver who had suffered a head injury, with lingering effects, it would not have been a great surprise if Craven’s career had simply melted away.

But in 2001 he caught another break. He was signed to replace Scott Pruett at Cal Wells Motorsports. Craven latched on with a new team, but one with potential.

That potential was realized in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 15 of that year. In an intense battle with Dale Jarrett, Craven emerged the victor in, yes, an extremely close finish.

It was Craven’s first career Cup victory – very popular among fellow competitors and fans – and an emotional one for him. His career had been resurrected.

Craven, or anyone else for that matter, could not have known what was to happen two years later.

At Darlington it all came down to the final three laps.

Busch was the leader. Craven latched on to his rear bumper and went low in the fourth turn in an attempt to pass. He couldn’t.

On the next lap, Craven drew alongside Busch out of the fourth turn and the two raced down the frontstretch side-by-side.

Craven took the lead in the first turn by crowding Busch to the outside. Busch tapped the right rear of Craven’s Pontiac and took the lead as the white flag flew.

The crowd was enraptured by the action. Fans, all out of their seats, were screaming.

Out of the fourth turn on the last lap, Craven slammed into the side of Busch’s Ford, which yanked the wheel out of the Roush driver’s hands.

They were locked side-by-side at the checkered flag. Sparks were flying.

Neither knew who had won the race – until Craven looked at the scoring tower and saw his car number on top.

Afterward, both Craven and Busch, who shared an emotional experience as they congratulated each other in victory lane, remarked that the finish was fun, exciting and one of which each was proud to be a part. They knew they had become fixtures in NASCAR history.

It was Craven’s last shining moment in racing.

Three-quarters of the way through the 2004 season he was replaced at Wells by Bobby Hamilton Jr.

His Cup career ended after 278 starts.

Busch, of course, has gone on to greater things.

But they remain, and always will, a part of NASCAR lore. They were the drivers who established the closest finish in NASCAR’s history.

Since that time, of course, it has been equaled – but then, never bettered.

 

Opinions Aside, The Aaron’s 499 Finish Is Now A Part Of NASCAR Lore

The finish of the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway will rank – heck it already has – as one of the best in NASCAR’s history.

Which means the race will be forever be a part of NASCAR lore. And why should it not be?

Jimmie Johnson nipped Clint Bowyer in a wild, four-car finish by .002-second, which was, again, the closest finish in NASCAR’s history since the introduction of electronic timing and scoring in 1993.

It tied Ricky Craven’s victory over Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003, a race since pronounced by many, NASCAR included, as “One For The Ages.”

Reckon Johnson and Bowyer are now part of another “One For The Ages.”

But I suspect many might disagree.

See, Craven and Busch battled at Darlington, a crusty, old, unforgiving track where such things as aerodynamics and drafting manipulated by NASCAR legislation – all widely despised by some – play no role. A driver’s skill, it’s said, has always been more important to success at Darlington than it has at Talladega or Daytona, where achievement is simply about the proper negotiation of the draft.

This includes a productive association with a partner, something hardly required at Darlington, where it is man against man.

And when it’s man against man they say THAT is racing.

Fair enough – but that does not always apply to fundamental beating and banging. There’s more to it than that. Dealing with the draft is part of it.

I am certain many who follow NASCAR do not, and likely never will, accept the style of restrictor-plate racing that has evolved today at Daytona and Talladega. And you know what it is. Two cars hook up in the draft and try their best to remain that way and, eventually, get the better of all the others who have done the same thing.

Hence, those who do not approve of this type of racing won’t likely consider any finish at Daytona or Talladega – however exciting – as anything more than a product of the contrived circumstances created by NASCAR and its rules.

OK, that’s their opinion. Here’s another: balderdash.

What Johnson achieved at Talladega is still monumental and historic, just as much as what Craven did at Darlington.

Who cares about the so-called “contrived circumstances?” Johnson won at a track in which the conditions and rules, and all involved therein, applied to everyone, just as Craven did at Darlington. It would have been the same for either of them, or any other driver, if they had won at Richmond, Chicago, Sonoma, Atlanta – you name it. The style of racing at every NASCAR speedway is different and requires competitors and teams to adapt as best as possible – and that involves car preparation and on-track strategy and includes Talladega.

So let’s put what is now restrictor-plate racing at that speedway aside, shall we? It is simply another part of what competition, week in and out, is all about – and to which teams must adapt.

What we saw in the Aaron’s 499 was one of the most exciting and truly unpredictable finishes in NASCAR’s history.

In Turn 3 on the last lap, Johnson, who had pretty much been out of our attention for most of the race, was running in fifth place, pushed by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., his constant companion throughout the race.

Ahead of Johnson were the cars of Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick.

At the checkered flag, Johnson, with Earnhardt Jr.’s help, found the low side of the track, just above the double yellow line, and won the race by a mere fraction of an inch over Bowyer.

It was so reminiscent of rookie Ron Bouchard’s victory at Talladega in 1981. Darrell Waltrip was leading on the last lap and battling Terry Labonte. Labonte had the high side of the track. Waltrip, in an effort to keep Labonte at bay, slid upwards to apply pressure. Neither he nor Labonte noticed Bouchard, then in third place, charge to the inside, following the gap left open to him

Bouchard, a native of Massachusetts, nipped both Waltrip and Labonte. It was an improbable victory and the only one of his NASCAR Cup career.

Johnson’s victory, his first of the season, ended his 15-race losing streak.

It was the 54th of his career, which ties him with Lee Petty for ninth on NASCAR’s all-time list.

His win was the eighth of the past 12 at Talladega that have been achieved with a last-lap pass.

Certainly, given the circumstances, Johnson’s victory was every bit as improbable as Bouchard’s.

And it was every bit as dramatic and exciting.

No matter what some might think of the style of racing at Talladega and the disdain they have for it, that changes nothing.

The Aaron’s 499 is now, and deservedly so, a part of NASCAR lore.

 

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