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Throwback Thursday Theater – Darlington & NASCAR’s Closest Finish Ever

By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor

With Darlington next up on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, it’s time again for another edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater”. Our “Lady in Black” edition will recap the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington that many will recall as the photo finish between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch.

Darlington has always been known for its rough and tumble style of racing, with the drivers battling not only each other, but the treacherous track as well. When the series headed to Darlington in March 2003, the results on that day would be spectacular.

Throughout the majority of the race, there were three drivers who had the dominant cars. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. led 91 of the first 116 laps before Mark Martin took his place on point, leading 71 of the next 76 laps. Martin was then displaced in the lead by Jeff Gordon, who led the next 78 laps.

After Gordon had a problem with 24 laps remaining, the lead moved to Kurt Busch, who was being pursued by Ricky Craven.

With about five laps to go, the two really made things interesting from there until the finish. Craven was finally able to get side-by-side with Busch crossing the finish line coming to two laps to go. The two drivers stayed side-by-side heading into Turn 1, with Craven on the bottom and Busch up top. They got together and Busch was forced into the Turn 1 wall, allowing Craven to escape with the lead, but it was short lived. Busch didn’t lose much ground and got back to Craven’s back bumper in Turn 2 and put him in the wall, which handed the lead back to Busch as the two drivers took the white flag.

Like the veteran he was, Craven stalked Busch for nearly the entire final lap, diving low for the pass off of Turn 4. When Craven dove low, the two drivers got together and were beating and banging off of each other going down the frontstretch all the way to the finish line. Craven was able to get the nose of his Pontiac out in front just enough to beat Busch to the finish by .002 seconds to score his second and final win of his Cup Series career.

The call from the FOX Sports broadcast crew of Darrell Waltrip, Larry McReynolds, and Mike Joy is one of the most memorable calls in NASCAR history.

Waltrip: Here he comes, he’s got ’em.
McReynolds: IT’S GONNA BE A DRAG RACE!
McReynolds: THEY TOUCH! THEY TOUCH!
All 3 simultaneously: CRAVEN!!!
Waltrip: CRAVEN GOT HIM!
Waltrip: All right!
Waltrip: Craven got him!
Waltrip: What a finish!
Joy: Have you ever?
Waltrip: No, I’ve never!

Despite having just lost by mere inches to Craven, Busch was all smiles on pit road after the race, having driven the last part of the race without power steering. A feat that is tough on a normal track by exacerbated at a track like Darlington.

“I had to get a lead because the power steering went away and I’ve never felt a heavier car in the world. We dug and dug and dug and with like 10 to go it finally just gave up altogether. The car was so tight and I couldn’t hang on. You know, it was an awesome race, I didn’t give him room in (Turn) 1 and he didn’t give me room in (Turn) 4 and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. This was some hard fought racing,” Busch said.

Craven, who had an up and down career in the Cup Series, was noticeably worn out after the race, but excited for a Darlington win.

“Oh my gosh. I’ve done this for over 20 years and as a racer, you dream of that. Being a New England boy and being attached to this sport, NASCAR, my whole life, I knew there was none any tougher than Darlington. So, that’s the one I wanted to win the worst and wow, this is sweet. Just got to thank everybody back home and it’s amazing that you can drive and pray at the same time, but I was doing it,” Craven said.

Veteran FOX reporter Dick Berggren asked Craven if he was holding his breath during the last few laps and Craven responded, saying: “I wasn’t holding my breath, but I was working pretty hard. Maybe it didn’t look that hard, but I tell you what, Kurt is such a good racer and we got together, and I don’t know why we didn’t wreck with a couple of laps to go and we said well, let’s try it again. This was absolutely the most fun I’ve ever had. I’m really thankful to have the opportunity to drive the Tide Pontiac and to have this group of people and to have these three (kids), and life is good.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.

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