He didn’t audition for his new job in the broadcast booth and didn’t get much coaching. Be yourself, he was told. Be candid. Talk about what you know. Don’t use too many words.

When the red light came on the day before Easter Sunday, Ricky Craven looked into the television camera. He was on his own, just like when he was a rookie in a race car. If he looked behind his chair he might have discovered the yellow stripe that flags newbies on the track.

Craven laughs. He didn’t pretend to be the answer man when ESPN asked if he’d mind filling in for Andy Petree, the former crew chief and current race analyst for NASCAR’s Nationwide Series races.

“My single biggest challenge was finding references, like every driver does, knowing where you need to run on the race track. It was the same in the booth.”

Judging by the feedback he’s heard from his producer and fans who watched NASCAR’s top minor league division from Nashville, Craven’s race was very clean. He was a “refreshing change of pace. Personable, intelligent, no bias, no cheerleading. Bring him back.”

His next race will be July 17 from Gateway International Raceway near St. Louis.

You remember Craven as the fresh-faced, red-headed driver from Maine. The New England Yankee with the quick wit, smart mouth and promise of success. The kid from the small Maine town of Newburgh who became a veteran. He last raced a Sprint Cup event in 2004. He last qualified for a NASCAR truck race in 2005.

He brought fans to their feet in 2003, either at home before their televisions or in front of their seats at Darlington, beating Kurt Busch in what has been called the closest and maybe the most exciting finish in NASCAR Cup racing.

He brought hearts to mouths with his vicious crash into the retaining wall and fencing at Talladega in 1996. Craven will relive those terrible minutes when he and Ray Evernham break them down with diagrams and commentary next week on ESPN2’s “NASCAR Now.” It doesn’t bother him, even though some say that accident and another during practice at Texas gave him the head injuries and temporary loss of equilibrium that hurt his career.

“I don’t think that way. Not even a little bit,” said Craven from his home in North Carolina. “I’m absolutely at peace with my career. Absolutely comfortable with all aspects of my life.”

His daughter, Riley, heads to college in the fall and Craven is preparing his wife, Kay, for the separation. Son Ev is a solid second baseman, and second daughter Lydia will always be the baby of the family. Craven told his wife that his racing career would be over at 40 and he pretty much kept that promise.

He sees his friend, fellow driver Kenny Wallace, whose infectious laugh is recognizable in the garage area. Wallace has also moved to the broadcast booth. “Kenny always tells me he’s envious of me,” said Craven. “I don’t know why. He’s got a beautiful family. He has his career. He has good friends.”

But Craven has two victories in Cup racing. Two is far fewer than the great names of NASCAR. Two is also two more than what Kenny Wallace has.

Craven entered a fraternity he’ll never leave after his victories at Martinsville and Darlington.

“He takes this job as seriously as he takes his driving,” said Jill Frederickson, an ESPN senior coordinating producer who evaluates the motorsports announcers and analysts. “His information is excellent, his delivery in a live, race broadcast and playing off (fellow analyst Dale Jarrett) was good.

“He’s got a great way of being critical that’s very disarming. He’s folksy.”

Frederickson, from Indiana, didn’t hear a “wicked” or an “a-yuh.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” said Craven. “All those words come back when I come home.”

 

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

[email protected]