DARLINGTON — What most racing fans remember about Ricky Craven beating Kurt Busch at Darlington Raceway in 2003 is NASCAR’s closest modern finish ever.
But Craven’s victory represented another rare feat in the sport – a David beating a Goliath. Craven’s small one-car team edged one of NASCAR’s most well-heeled outfits, one that would win the next two season championships.
As racers get ready to wrestle the track dubbed “Too Tough to Tame” this weekend, the idea of an upset by an upstart team is the talk of the garage. In part, that is because David Ragan, then 30th place in the points standings, powered past three of the season’s Top 4 drivers on the last lap to win Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.
Ragan’s win was just the eighth time in a span of 270 Sprint Cup races since 2003 that a driver from outside of NASCAR’s top-tier teams has taken the checkered flag.
The last time that happened was at Darlington in 2011. That was when Regan Smith, running for the only team based west of the Mississippi River and in 29th place in the standings, held off a charging Carl Edwards, who would lose the season championship on a tiebreaker.
Money is the main reason why NASCAR’s Davids have a hard time beating the Goliaths – namely Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.
About 20 of the 43 cars that line up each week don’t have the top-level financial backing, said Humpy Wheeler, former president at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“They lack that extra 10 horsepower, they lack the crew chief expertise to get a quarter of a second off their lap times or they have a driver who might be off a tad,” he said.
But Busch, a former Sprint Cup series champion who now drives for a smaller team, said the chances of a David winning can increase, depending on the track.
“There’s certain tracks that tailor themselves to the whole field, and then there’s tracks that tailor themselves to how the engineering and the infrastructure of a team can outspend another team,” Busch said this week.
Tracks at Talladega and Daytona, where all cars must use plates that restrict engine air flow to slow them down, are a “great equalizer” among race teams, Busch said. Three of the eight David victories in the past decade have happened at superspeedways.
“The core, though, of our schedule is still on the mile-and-a-half (tracks) – Darlington, Dover, Phoenix, New Hampshire,” Busch said.
But bigger budgets may not ensure mastery of Darlington, where drivers must contend with differing turns of the 1.366-mile-long egg-shaped track and changing conditions as the sun sets, track president Chris Browning said.
“Money buys speed in a lot of cases, but that doesn’t always translate at Darlington,” he said.
Underfunded underdogs, first-time winners and drought-ending victories can generate excitement among NASCAR fans, Wheeler said. “Nothing beats the guy who’s not supposed to do it.”
Craven said this week that underdog wins – like his, Ragan’s and Smith’s – are like a small-market baseball team beating the New York Yankees. (The NASCAR equivalent would be five-time series champion and reigning Darlington winner Jimmie Johnson.)
“Not everybody wants to see the Yankees win year after year,” Craven said.
Still, NASCAR cannot afford to have no-names win every week.
“No one paid attention to golf without Tiger (Woods),” Wheeler said. “Fans want the superstar, and they want the underdog to come along and beat them.”