Craven beats Busch in dramatic finish

Sunday, March 16th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) _ Ricky Craven thought one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history was absolutely ``perfect.''

Craven won the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 by inches Sunday in a spectacular banging, grinding side-by-side finish with Kurt Busch at Darlington Raceway.

``This is exactly what you dream of,'' Craven said. ``It will probably never happen again. This was the perfect finish at the perfect track.''

The unofficial margin of victory was two-thousandths of a second _ the smallest since NASCAR introduced electronic timing in 1993.

Busch seemed just as thrilled as Craven by the dramatic finish.

``It was awesome. That's what it's all about _ racing as hard as you can,'' said Busch, who also lost a close battle with Dale Jarrett last month in Rockingham. ``I drove the Ford the best I could and came up a bit shy, I guess.''

Craven earned the second win of his career by charging from fourth with 23 laps to go. He got to second place on lap 271 of the 293-lap event when pole-sitter Elliott Sadler bounced off the wall and lost ground.

Busch had taken the lead the previous lap after Jeff Gordon banged off the wall while trying to fend off Busch.

Busch appeared to have the race won at that point, but a power steering problem that got progressively worse as the race neared its end gave Craven his chance.

Craven's No. 32 Pontiac inched closer on every lap, and he finally pulled alongside Busch's No. 97 Ford twice on lap 291. As they drove into the first turn on the next lap, Craven bumped Busch and nearly sent him into the wall as he took the lead.

Busch gathered in his sliding car and bumped past Craven in the second turn, nearly putting Craven in the wall.

``When we got together in turn one, I don't know how he saved it,'' Craven said. ``Then, I don't know how I saved it. That was wild.''

Busch retained the lead until the final turn of the race when Craven moved to the inside of Busch's car and the two started bouncing off each other and grinding toward the finish. Craven was in front at the end, though. His other victory came at Martinsville in October 2001.

``I didn't realize there was only a couple of laps left, but I knew I had to get by him,'' Craven said. ``If we had lost that race, it would have been devastating.''

Busch said without the power steering problem it would have been no contest.

``It began cutting out on me with 50 (laps) to go and was completely gone in the last 10 laps,'' said Busch, who now has three runner-up finishes in five races this season. ``There's no way he would have caught me, but that car felt like it weighed 10,000 pounds at the end. Without power steering, I couldn't feel the car.''

Still, the 24-year-old Busch gave it everything he had and nearly pulled it off.

``Coming to the line I had my foot on the floor as hard as I could and I tried to hold the wheel as straight as I could,'' Busch said. ``He was running out of racetrack. I mean, the excitement level within the car _ you have to block it out and you have to focus on what you have to do.

``There was so much going on. My arms were numb, my brain was numb.''

Craven's race average was 126.214 mph, slowed by seven cautions for 34 laps.

Dave Blaney was third, the best finish of his career. He was followed by Mark Martin, Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Sadler and series points leader Matt Kenseth.

Defending Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart was 10th and fell from 49 to 57 points behind Kenseth in the standings, with Waltrip another five points back.

Craven was criticized by some for returning to racing after missing 12 races in 1998 following a series of concussions. Both of his victories have come since he returned, both while driving for Cal Wells' PPI Motorsports.

``I know you've got to legitimize (the first win), back it up,'' Craven said. ``And you know there's no tougher place than Darlington, S.C. It's honestly the one place where I've always wanted to win. Cal will tell you that, and my wife will tell you that.''

Darlington's 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval, the first superspeedway in NASCAR, is considered one of the most treacherous in the sport and is known as the ``Track Too Tough to Tame.'' Sunday was the 100th Winston Cup race here.

There was only one serious wreck in the race, with seven cars hitting the wall or each other on lap 23. It took defending race winner Sterling Marlin out of contention and did considerable damage to the cars driven by Kevin Harvick, Todd Bodine, Bobby Labonte, Jimmie Johnson and rookies Tony Raines and Jack Sprague.