Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch were slapping sheet metal as they came off the final turn of the final lap of the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 on March 16, 2003.
Then it got closer.
Craven nosed his car into Busch’s as the distance to the finish line shrank. Busch felt Craven’s presence on his left rear tire, then the passenger door. Then when their front tires began to rub, the cars locked.
Busch lost his grip on the steering wheel and as the two cars crashed past the checkered flag, the closest race in NASCAR history had just concluded.
Craven had won by a few inches and .002 seconds.
“Yeah, the most memorable part has to have been just the way the cars came to the finish line,” Busch said Tuesday in advance of this weekend’s Bojangles Southern 500. “But to tell the story as many times as I have over the last 10 years, it gets better and better each year.
“It just puts a smile on your face when you know you gave it your all and the guy that you were racing, a competitor, he gave it his all, and the two of us put on a show.”
Craven had qualified 31st and meticulously worked his way through the pack. After 100 laps he was in the top 15.
By lap 180, he was 11th.
After 200 laps, he was fifth.
And while Craven was charging, Busch merely was trying to stay in control of his car. The power steering was on the verge of collapse.
“I knew Ricky was going to catch me. I just knew it,” Busch said. “I had power steering issues and lap after lap he’s ticking away. Not two-tenths or three-tenths, he’s ticking a way a half-second quicker than us.”
If the finish had been clean, there might have been a different outcome.
“I didn’t know what he was dealing with as far as power steering issues,” Craven said.
Busch knew if there was contact, his car was sunk. When Craven locked wheels on that final stretch, Busch’s power steering went out all together. The steering wheel jumped out of Busch’s hands.
“It was just, all right, if you can do math, you know he’s going to catch you with about two to go, three to go, and I’m like I don’t know what I’m going to do when he catches me,” Busch said. “But he doesn’t know I’m going through all this hardship, so maybe I can catch him by surprise and at least juke him for a lap and a half.”
Nowadays, such a clenched fist of a finish seems to lead to clenched fists in the garage. On that day, Busch gladly joined Craven in victory lane to celebrate the thrilling finish.
“For the last few laps, I can tell you there were two guys that emptied the tank,” Craven said. “And it’s the only reason, the only reason I can explain Kurt walking across the garage to join me in victory lane and celebrate is because he had emptied the tank like I had.”
The victory would be Craven’s last on the circuit. He will be at Darlington this week as an analyst for ESPN.
He said that win and Darlington continues to hold a special place in his memory.
“The life I’m in now, where I do have time to reflect, it’s pretty clear that with two or three to go, we both made the decision that we’re going to win this race and we went about it in different ways,” Craven said. “But in the end, it just came down to a few inches. You don’t script it.
“And at the end of the day, what is there to complain about?” he added. “You did everything you could do. I mean, really, I think that’s what the race represents.”
Busch, meanwhile, continues to search for his first win at Darlington.
“Yeah, I’m really pumped up about this weekend,” he said. “Drivers can say that each week but … with my hunger to try to win at Darlington and get those .002 of a second back, it’s going to be a good weekend. I really feel it.”