By DAVE MOODY
Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus
Anyone else would have gloated.
Two years ago, Ricky Craven was on the outside of Winston Cup racing, looking in. Written off by many in the NASCAR community after a series of hard crashes and a terrifying bout with post-concussion syndrome, the Newbergh, Maine driver was reduced to running a limited schedule of events for a low-buck team, while spending the rest of his time at home on Moosehead Lake, mourning the loss of his career.
But Monday at Martinsville (VA) Speedway, Craven proved everyone wrong. The driver who was too hurt, too timid, too scared to win in NASCAR’s premier series ran 500 laps on one of the circuit’s toughest tracks - every one of them in the top 10 - took the lead with a testosterone-rich late move in traffic, then held off former series champion Dale Jarrett in a last-lap fender swapping duel to win the rain-delayed Old Dominion 500; his first career Winston Cup victory.
“When we crossed the start-finish line and (crewchief) Mike Beam said, 'You won the race,' time stopped. I ran two laps with my visor down because I couldn't talk. The first thing I thought of was my kids. The last two years have been miserable, spending half my time floating around Moosehead Lake, and the other half driving the 50 car. It wasn't my idea of racing, but it allowed me to be visible.
“But that time was also the absolute greatest time of my life, because of my kids,” he said. “We have a log home in the mountains of Maine, so I went up there and said, 'Hey, if I'm gonna be miserable, I'm going to be miserable up here, where nobody has to see me. I'm gonna be with my kids. My wife told me one day, a year or so ago, `Tough times don't last. Tough people do. Just carry on.' That stuck with me, and when I got this opportunity, I reminded myself of what she said. Martinsville is one of the toughest places we race, but you've just got to get tough right back."
Professionally, Craven said his Martinsville win fulfilled a lifelong dream.
“I began racing when I was 15 years old, and I always had the vision of winning a Winston Cup race. I was really upset the last few years thinking, 'I may not win that Winston Cup race, and I'm going to be miserable the rest of my life.'
"What happened to me is just an element of our business,” he said. “You're going to get knocked around a little, and I'm thankful that I didn't get beat up too bad. In some respects, I think it tempered me and settled me down some. There's just no future in bouncing off the wall, and it took me learning that the hard way."
It is somehow fitting that Craven’s first Winston Cup win came at a Martinsville oval that demands more of a driver than any other on the circuit. Only a handful of cars finished Monday’s 500-lap grind without damage; one of them Craven’s. And when the opportunity came for an all-or-nothing shot at the lead, the former ACT and NASCAR Busch North Series star did not hesitate.
"I recognized it as an opportunity to get the lead," said Craven of a three-wide dive that swept him past both leader Bobby Hamilton and runnerup Kevin Harvick. "I didn't have the time to evaluate or analyze what happened. My spotter was saying, `You're three wide,’ we went down into turn three, and I survived. I don't even know what happened to them."
Craven called the final 10 laps on Monday’s race "the hardest 10 laps I've ever run in my life. That was as deep as I could run, as hard I could brake, and as hard as I could turn. And Jarrett was still coming. He did everything he could do to win, but he didn't rough me up.
“I went into turn one with a lap to go and said, 'I've got this thing,' because he was actually behind me. He hadn't pulled up. I ran into the corner as hard as I could, but I wasn't going to let myself slide up. He got a run on the outside coming up off turn two, almost even, and I wasn't that generous. I used up every bit of racetrack, and we made contact. Then, in turn three, I was even less generous. If it had been another lap, I don't think I could have held him off. But I was not going to lose that way. I'm just lucky I had Dale Jarrett on the outside."
Later, after the high-fives had been exchanged and the Victory Lane photos taken, Craven was asked about the rumors that had dogged him these past few years, the “damaged goods” reputation that gave so many quality rides to others at his expense. It was a golden opportunity to vent the “I told you so’s” that had burned in his chest for so long, to kick sand in the face of the people who had effectively blackballed him from the sport.
Instead, Craven spoke of his family.
“Everything that happened to me has made me a better person, and today it's all paid off,” he said. “From here on out, the NASCAR Winston Cup record book is going to have my name listed with some of the greatest. That's what I've wanted all my life.
“I've got Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to enjoy this, and I'm going to. We're going to do some fun stuff, and it might even be at the expense of (next weekend’s race at) Talladega. I'm going to have an extraordinary phone bill. I'm going to talk to a lot of people and have a celebration. This is a big, big moment for us."
In conclusion, a few personal thoughts.
I first met Ricky Craven in the mid-1980s, when the old American-Canadian Tour competed at Maine’s Unity Raceway. One night, after the races, a skinny redheaded kid with a grease-soaked firesuit stepped up and introduced himself to ACT President Tom Curley.
“Mr. Curley, you don’t know me,” he said, “but my name is Ricky Craven. I drive in one of the support divisions here, and I wanted to say that someday, I hope to be good enough to race on your Tour.”
Thereafter, whenever we raced in Maine, we’d always take a minute to watch the local Late Model feature. More often than not, we’d spot the kid they called “The Red Baron,” slashing his no-bucks #12 through the field, learning how to be a racer, chasing his dream. A couple of years later, he showed up in a ragtag Pro Stock, hoping to earn a spot in the field at Oxford Plains Speedway. His efforts attracted the attention and support of longtime Maine car owner Lewis Stuart, and soon, Craven was on his way up the New England motorsports ladder.
At every rung on that ladder, Craven watched and listened. He learned his lessons well before venturing higher, from local Late Models to Pro Stocks to ACT and Busch North. The only thing he never picked up was the attitude. On NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series, Ricky Craven is an enigma. His ego remains in check, his attitude unaffected, his personality unchanged. He greets friends from 20 years ago with the same warmth and enthusiasm he did way back when, whether they’re carrying an MRN microphone or not.
Ricky Craven joined the ranks of NASCAR Winston Cup winners Monday. But to a lot of us, he’s been a winner all along.
Short (Track) Subjects…
…The day before Craven’s Martinsville victory, fellow northeaster Randy LaJoie copped the Busch Series checkers at Memphis Motorsports Park, slipping past Jay Sauter and Jeff Green when the two tangled in turn three of the final lap. It was LaJoie’s second NBS win of 2001, and first since the season-opener at Daytona.
…Two races into his week-to-week deal with Vermonter Kevin Lepage, Jim Smith now says he expects his Ultra Motorsports team to field a Winston Cup entry team next season. The team owner is in currently in with sponsor NationsRent, and is hunting a backer for next year, as well. But after a 13th-place finish at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and a 21st last weekend at Talladega, Lepage appears to be solidly in the running to steer Smith’s new Dodges in 2002. Smith has said Lepage will likely run the remainder of the 2001 schedule in his cars.
…Dave Blaney will drive the Jasper Motorsports #77 Ford next season, replacing Robert Pressley. Blaney leaves Bill Davis Racing, which is still looking for a sponsor to replace departing Amoco in 2002.