Hey, Ricky, got a ride? Coming back this year, Ricky?

Ricky Craven, who has always seen the balance in life, has to grin. “There are no retirement parties in NASCAR. Five years ago my career ended abruptly. I wish it happened differently.”

He hears the questions, especially when he’s back in Maine, and shakes his head. He does have a regret or two but the door to that part of his life is closed. He will not reopen it.

He talks about NASCAR for ESPN now, rather than living NASCAR for his sponsors. He can walk through a garage area taking in the unique sounds and visuals of race teams preparing for that weekend’s race and there is no itch to scratch.

Not even the memories of drafting through the high banks of Daytona International Speedway or its long back straight at full throttle can turn back his clock.

He started racing when he was 15 at Unity Raceway and he stopped when he was 40.

“My tank was empty,” said Craven. “I had nothing left. You have to understand how I started to understand how I walked away.”

He took 25 years of his life to reach the highest level of his sport and stay there for 11 seasons. He flirted with death in his terrible crash at Talladega when he went airborne. He suffered a head injury that set back his career in a crash at Texas. He spent too much time away from his wife and their young children. He missed a grandmother’s funeral.

In public he was the approachable rock star. He made eye contact with his fans. He asked where they were from. He was glib but sincere. In private he was still the kid from smalltown Newburgh, Maine. A fan of Maine hockey and the Boston Red Sox.

Recently he bought a recording of loons to remind him of his second home on Moosehead Lake, far from North Carolina. He was back on Moosehead last week for a fishing derby.

Hey, Ricky, you gonna race again?

He gets asked if there will be another Ricky Craven in our lifetime. Of course there will, he answers.

“There are maybe drivers in Maine more talented than me. It’s less to do with talent and more to do with determination and sacrifice. Somewhere there’s got to be someone who will leave Newburgh, Maine, leave the security of their family and friends, and really lay it on the line.

“There are always barriers and obviously the financial barrier is the big one. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon.”

Craven knew he couldn’t make people see the fire in his belly. So he showed them the determination in his eyes. “People will line up to help if they see that.”

Craven was fortunate. He was ambitious and made sure people who had the power to give him a chance saw that.

He laughs. “I succeeded because I didn’t know any better. Knowing all that I know today (about getting ahead in NASCAR), it’s far too discouraging.”

At 17 or 21 he simply forged ahead, learning quickly from his mistakes. He was good and he was lucky and made the most of it. Someone can do it again.

It’s been seven years since Craven climbed into a Sprint Cup Series car to race for owner Cal Wells in the familiar Tide-sponsored car.

Six years since his last victory in a top NASCAR division when he won a Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville, Va. He walked away from the last year of his contract with Jack Roush and a half-million dollar base salary. The tank was empty.

In 1997, he and Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte swept the top three places in the Daytona 500. The raced ended under a caution flag and Craven still wonders if he might have snatched the win if they could have raced the last two laps.

“Or maybe I would have crashed and finished 38th. Maybe we all would have gone off on the hook.”

He won twice in Sprint Cup, including the closest finish ever when he beat Kurt Busch by inches in 2003 at Darlington, S.C. But Craven calls himself an underachiever in Sprint Cup. He might have won 10 times.

Craven raced in the TD Bank 250 a few years ago and didn’t win. It was another regret.

“I wanted to win so I could tell the world it witnessed my last race.”

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

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