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.


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