By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Since 1949, NASCAR has raced at Martinsville and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads back to the shortest track on the circuit this Sunday for the First Data 500.
Before focusing on the present day and the opening race of the Round of Eight in the MENCS Playoffs, we’ll revisit the 2001 Old Dominion 500 – a race that gave NASCAR on ESPN analyst Ricky Craven his first career Cup Series win.
As rain set in on the scheduled Sunday race date, the race was postponed until Monday and would run the distance under clear and cool October skies. Todd Bodine would start on pole with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. alongside.
Bodine would lead the first nine laps of the event before Craven took his No.32 Ford to the point to show that he would be a force to be reckoned with throughout the day.
Through the first 355 laps, Craven would lead 66 laps, while points leader Jeff Gordon would lead 50 circuits. Other leaders through that point in the race would include Matt Kenseth, Mike Wallace, Elliott Sadler, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Ward Burton, Dale Jarrett, and Casey Atwood.
On lap 356, Bobby Hamilton asserted himself into the lead and Hamilton would pace the field for the next 92 circuits before giving way to Johnny Benson, Jr. and Kevin Harvick.
Hamilton would ride right in Harvick’s shadow trying to force the rookie into a mistake while Craven and Jarrett gained ground on both of the front runners and the four cars were all close enough to each other to challenge for the lead and the win.
With just 28 laps remaining, Hamilton got into the back of Harvick, moving him up the track. Hamilton also swung wide after the contact, allowing Craven to drive underneath both cars into the lead. Hamilton would fight his way back on the outside of Craven heading into Turn 3, but Harvick was right on Hamilton’s rear bumper and the rookie served a little payback to Hamilton as the two made contact and sent Hamilton’s No. 55 for a spin.
As a result of the contact, Harvick was held by NASCAR for one lap for a rough driving penalty, taking Harvick out of contention for the win and setting up a duel between Craven and Jarrett for the race win.
The green flag flew once again with 17 laps remaining and Craven scooted away from the field with his two fresh tires that he had taken on his final stop prior to the Hamilton/Harvick caution. However, he could not shake one car, Jarrett’s No. 88 car that had four fresh tires on the final stop where Craven took just two.
Jarrett, who had won the Spring race at Martinsville that year and was looking for the sweep, made the move to the outside of Craven heading into Turn 1 on the final lap and the two would remain door to door all the way down the backstretch. They kept the double wide formation through Turns 3 and 4, but Craven was able to get the advantage as they entered the frontstretch and beat the 1999 Cup Series champion to the line by .141 seconds.
TNT play by play announcer Allen Bestwick gave the best commentary on the finish as the called the final half lap of the race, saying: “Bumping and banging into the final corner! No traffic ahead, Craven runs Jarrett up the race track! Here they come off the turn! Ricky Craven is a NASCAR Winston Cup winner! What a finish at Martinsville!”
After suffering multiple concussions in the late 90’s, Craven was sitting on the sidelines before landing with Cal Wells Racing and the No. 32 team, so for Craven and the team, the win meant more than just a win, it proved that Craven’s comeback was complete.
“There are just countless people that I have to thank. I began racing in 1982, I was 15 years old with a dream of winning a Winston Cup race and by God, we did it today,” Craven said.
“I found comfort with Dale Jarrett in my mirror and I just prayed the last 20 laps that I had the strength to keep going because we took two tires and it was getting away from me. It’s the hardest 20 laps I’ve ever driven in my life.
“But I want to tell you, I owe everything to this team. First, Cal Wells for giving me the chance to drive his car. Tide, the greatest group in the world I’ve ever raced for. They deserve to be in victory lane. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize my wife, Riley, and Everett. There were two years where we were floating around Moosehead Lake and given little chance of ever getting back to Winston Cup. My wife said to me one day, ‘tough times don’t last, tough people do,’ and I found inspiration in that.
“I just won a Winston Cup race, man. That’s awesome.”