Craven Beating The Odds With 2003 Success

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

 

Any Winston Cup win is a big win. But Ricky Craven’s razor-close victory in the “Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 two weeks ago at Darlington was huge. Not only was it the second of Craven’s Winston Cup career, but it came over astronomical odds for him and his PPI Motorsports Team.

Since the end of last season, Craven’s Cal Wells-owned team has switched manufacturers - from Ford to Pontiac - started its own in-house engine program, and integrated a new crewchief and head engineer to the mix. Despite all those changes, the Maine native sits seventh in Winston Cup points, after following-up his Darlington win with a 15th-place showing at Bristol Sunday.

"Change is always difficult," said Craven this week. "But this has been a lot less difficult than I anticipated."

A year ago, Craven claimed a 15th-place finish in the final points, with one pole, three top-fives, and nine top-10 finishes. Unfortunately, crewchief Mike Beam and engineer Roy McCauley jumped the fence for greener pastures during the offseason, with Beam accepting a position as Jeff Green's crewchief at Richard Childress Racing, and McCauley heading to Penske Racing. They were quickly replaced by new crewchief Scott Miller and engineer Kent Day, but Craven admits the changes hit him and his team hard.

"I had built a friendship with Mike and Roy," said the Newbergh, Maine, native. "But business is business, and you have to separate business from pleasure. The cool thing is that I had always had a friendship with Scott, and Kent was already with us."

"Ricky was reeling a little bit,” admitted team-owner Wells. “Based on the momentum we had the first half of last year, we really felt we were going to be very, very strong with Mike and Roy staying on."

Instead, the PPI team was forced to deal with two more question marks in an off-season already filled with change. The transition has been smooth overall, though there have been a few missteps. Miller shouldered the blame for failing to pit in the late going at Daytona; a decision that dropped Craven to 26th place. A late stop at Las Vegas saw Craven restart deep in the field, where he tangled with a lapped car en route to a 36th-place finish. But all in all, the 2003 season has been a good one for Craven and his retooled team.

They stand just 200 points behind leader Matt Kenseth, solidly in seventh place on the Winston Cup point board. Prospects for a third career Winston Cup victory are good, and PPI has become one of the few single-car teams capable of running consistently at the front of the NASCAR pack. Craven’s name is frequently mentioned in the Winston Cup rumor mill, most recently as a possible replacement for Steve Park at Dale Earnhardt, Inc., and while he insists he’s not looking for a new ride, it’s always nice to be wanted.

Darlington Raceway officials contacted the team recently, asking to display their winning car -- complete with rumpled sheet metal and tire marks from Kurt Busch's Ford, in the track’s museum. Wells says he has yet to make a decision on whether or not to give the car up. All the other questions, though, appear to have been answered.

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Short (Track) Subjects…

…After two weeks of upheaval, Jack Roush Racing turned things around in a hurry this week, sending Kurt Busch to Victory Lane at Bristol, closely pursued by teammate Matt Kenseth. That 1-2 finish, along with rookie Greg Biffle’s fifth-place run, followed a chaotic, two-week period that saw Roush engines exploding like an Iraqi command bunker, reportedly due to faulty coatings on a batch of pistons.

Roush Racing teammates Jeff Burton and Mark Martin finished13th and 29th Sunday, the first time all five Roush Fords were running at the finish in quite some time.

…Things are not so rosy at Evernham Motorsports, where team-owner Ray Evernham is struggling with two lackluster teams. Evernham recently shuffled a number of over-the-wall crewmen to new positions within the operation, in an effort to improve performance on pit stops. In addition, driver Jeremy Mayfield is said to be under pressure to improve his performance, lest a change be made behind the wheel. Sources say NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series star Brendan Gaughan could be in line for the seat, if Mayfield is let go.

Evernham also finds himself waist-deep in the nasty divorce fight between Jeff and Brooke Gordon. After serving as best man at the couple’s wedding, Evernham is now fighting a subpoena that would require him to turn over his team’s financial records to Brooke Gordon’s lawyers; a fight that has cost him nearly $20,000.

"It's cost me a lot of time, and a lot of money,” huffed Evernham last week. “The bottom line is this
is between Jeff and Brooke, and I don't want to get in the middle of it,"

…There could be more night racing on the NASCAR Winston Cup schedule next season, but not until the second half. NASCAR Chief Operating Officer George Pyne said this week that later starting times are something the sanctioning body is considering, as they attempt to reach a wider television audience. New night races, should they come, will occur in the season’s second half, when NBC and TNT are the networks of record. Pyne said the 2004 Winston Cup schedule should be released by Labor Day.

…Don’t expect Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Burton to exchange Christmas cards this December.

Waltrip, a former NASCAR Winston Cup champion who now sings for his supper in the FOX television booth, is embroiled in a verbal feud with Burton over comments made by the Virginia driver two weeks ago at Darlington. Burton said that driving today’s Winston Cup cars takes a lot out of a driver, and claimed that the men behind the wheel are “up on the wheel,” driving hard, every lap. Waltrip replied that current NASCAR machines are equipped with power steering and air conditioning, neither or which were standard equipment in his day.

Sources say Waltrip was upset with Burton’s comments, and expressed his displeasure with anyone who cared to listen last weekend at Bristol. Just another example of the old folks talking about how much tougher things were when they were young.

…Kyle Petty was treated and released from Bristol Regional Medical Center Sunday night after a hard crash at Bristol. Petty’s Dodge was clipped by the spinning car of Ward Burton, and made hard contact with the outside wall on lap 424. Petty was slow to exit his demolished racer, saying he “hurt all over." He returned home Sunday night, and is expected to be ready for this week’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.

…The American Canadian Tour has announced a 13% increase in the 2003 New England Dodge Tour point fund, to $72,3000. The first-place share remains at $15,000. All other portions have been raised, with particular emphasis on positions 15-20. The ACT point fund has now increased 58% over the last four years. The series will continue its three-segment format for payment of the point fund. The first installment will follow the Oxford Plains Speedway event on July 12. The point leader at that stage of the 16-race tour will earn $5,000. Whoever earns the most points over the remainder of the schedule will also earn $5,000, as will the overall point champion. The total payout for 20th place will be $2,000.

…Mike McLaughlin has a new ride on the NASCAR Busch Series. McLaughlin, whose unsponsored entry was the Cinderella story of Speedweek at Daytona, will drive a new Busch Series entry fielded by veteran car owner Frank Cicci and NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. The team has yet to run its first race, but McLaughlin drove successfully for Cicci from 1994 through 1999. He replaces Clay Rogers in the team's No. 34 Chevrolets.

…Canaan Fair Speedway will host the Pro All Stars Series this season, according to track owner/promoter C.V. Elms, III. Elms and PASS President Tom Mayberry inked a deal last week to bring the traveling Pro Stock tour to the Canaan asphalt on Sunday, May 18 for a 150-lap event.

…Just when you started getting comfortable with FOX, NBC and TNT, it’s time to start thinking about who might come next. The current batch of television contracts expires at the end of the 2004 season, and sources say that at least one major network may be interested in getting a piece of the action. Sources with ABC say the network is considering a bid for NASCAR’s Winston Cup package in 2005, and could make a substantial offer in an effort to replace one of the current contract holders. This, despite the fact that none of the three current networks has made money on the current package, despite steadily-improving ratings.

…Former NASCAR Busch North and ACT Pro Stock veteran Tracy Gordon made his ASA debut at Florida’s USA Speedway Sunday. The Maine driver dodged a four-car melee with eight laps remaining to claim a 12th-place finish in the race, won by veteran Butch Miller.