COLUMBIA, S.C. – Kurt Busch never stops hoping for the perfect finish at Darlington Raceway.
It was 10 years ago that Busch came up an agonizing .002 seconds shy of victory to Ricky Craven of Newburgh, Maine, at the track “Too Tough To Tame.” Busch said he’s seen replays of the final few laps of that 2003 race several times and each time wishes for a different outcome, that he noses out Craven in what is Sprint Cup’s closest finish since it went to electronic timing in 1993.
“To tell the story as many times as I have over the last 10 years, it gets better and better each year,” Busch said Tuesday. “It puts a smile on your face.”
Even for Busch, the runner-up. He’s twice won the pole and has five top-10 finishes in 16 trips to Darlington. Yet he’s never gotten closer to the checkered flag there than those two-thousands of a second. Busch will get his next chance for a Darlington victory when the Sprint Cup Series returns Saturday night for the Southern 500.
He’s also looking to rebound from another disappointing ending last week at Talladega Superspeedway. Busch was caught in a late wreck, his car going airborne before landing on Ryan Newman and finishing 30th. Busch saw tape of the accident and said it was simply the result of fast, tight racing with so many competitors chasing victory.
“There’s nobody to blame. I can’t even blame NASCAR for it,” Busch said. ” It’s just when it’s a free-for-all like that at the end of the race, you have to expect bumping and grinding.”
Busch felt lucky Newman was there for a landing spot, anticipating a long, series of barrel rolls “from Talladega to Georgia,” he said. But Busch walked away unhurt and ready to relive his close call at Darlington.
Craven had rallied from fourth and drew even with Busch for the lead with two laps to go. They bumped each other throughout and both appeared headed into the wall in the final moments. Craven edged in front on the final turn, the two cars grinding into each other as they slid past the finish.
While the margin of victory has since been equaled — Jimmie Johnson defeated Clint Bowyer by .002 seconds at Talladega in 2011 — Busch believes nothing will match the show he and Craven put on at Darlington.
“This day we had two winners it seemed, and that’s what gave it such a unique twist,” he said. “Or maybe I’m just telling myself that because I keep losing this race by .002 of a second, and I’m never going to accept that, but it was a great race.”
And one that helped NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway retain a place in Sprint Cup racing. The track was on notice that year that its crumbling infrastructure and dwindling crowds made it a candidate for closure.
Instead the dramatic finish showed drivers, fans and NASCAR leaders the thrills the egg-shaped oval could produce. Andrew Gurtis, then the Darlington president, remembers the excitement in the late Jim Hunter’s voice as the NASCAR vice president detailed the finish on the phone to the longtime CEO, the late Bill France Jr.
“It went a long way in reminding people what Darlington was all about,” said Gurtis.
Darlington made it through NASCAR’s realignment, gaining a niche on Mother’s Day weekend. Strong crowds the past eight years turned around the track’s once uncertain future.
“I’m not nearly bold enough to say that that one race was a turning point,” Craven said. “But I am realistic enough to say people buy into a product because they want value or they want an experience. They want something that sticks.”
Craven said anyone who attended or has seen the Darlington finish in 2003 won’t forget it.
Darlington still provides thrills — many of them coming after the race. Kevin Harvick confronted Kurt’s brother, Kyle, on the track driving toward the garage after the 2011 Southern 500. Last year, it was Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and their teams scuffling after the race.
There were plenty, including Craven, who expected the fiery Kurt Busch to come out swinging after the race 10 years ago. Instead, Busch went to Victory Lane and celebrated with the winning team.
“I think that day it was just something special and it was two men that gave everything they were worth,” Busch said. “If there was a loser, it was fine, because I gave it everything I had.”