Ricky Craven watched the video of two Sprint Cup cars racing for the same spot on the speedway in Texas. He saw Brad Keselowski bump the car ahead of his. He saw Jeff Gordon lose control of his race car and the race lead.

Craven watched it again from a second angle. A third angle and another until he was satisfied he understood. Then he looked into the camera on an ESPN set.

This is what happened on the track at the end of an important NASCAR race. This is why the drivers and their crews brawled with each other afterward.

Craven spoke with the clarity that comes from having been there, done that. For 10 years he was the Mainer from the small community of Newburgh who raced alongside Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart, and the other names so familiar to Sprint Cup fans. He won at Martinsville in 2001, holding off Dale Jarrett. He won at Darlington, barely getting the nose of his Tide Pontiac across the finish line ahead of Kurt Busch.

Craven’s margin of victory was .002 of a second. There hasn’t been a closer finish in Sprint Cup racing. In his mind, Craven went back to that 2003 race when he watched Keselowski try to pass Gordon last week.

There was a big difference. Gordon went from first to 29th. Craven and Busch continually bumped and rubbed sheet metal over the last four laps.

Craven was jubilant, of course. He didn’t know how Busch was reacting in his race car on the cool-down lap. When Craven was celebrating in victory lane with his family and race team he saw Busch walking toward him.

“I had Riley (his daughter) and Everett (his son) around me and I didn’t know what Kurt was thinking. Was he mad? Would we be rolling around in the dirt? I left my kids and walked quickly to meet him.”

Busch was almost as excited as Craven. He understood the magnitude of the moment. Neither driver had given an inch in the last sprint to the finish. That was racing.

Craven said the same in the aftermath of the Gordon-Keselowski dust-up. Both are racing for the Sprint Cup championship in the closing weeks of the season. Keselowski saw a hole in traffic and raced to it. The hole closed.

“This isn’t about how nice a guy you are,” said Craven from his home in North Carolina. “What you’re really judged on is performance. You have to decide: How far am I ready to go to win this championship?

“I was willing to go to the extreme when I won at Martinsville and certainly at Darlington. Brad had to decide if has the courage and the strength to do what he needed to do.

“How far are you willing to travel down this road? It comes with a price.”

Craven understands the pressure to win is greater today, what with the changes NASCAR made for this season to create more interest in a playoff of sorts similar to other sports. The 16 drivers who qualify for the late-season Chase to the Sprint Cup are now eliminated by their performances in the nine races leading up to the final at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.

Eight drivers are still in contention going into Sunday’s race at Phoenix. Four will be eliminated.

“I thought the pressure I faced was enormous when I was living it. Jeff Burton (a fellow driver) and I would laugh: This is a hard way to make a living. I couldn’t imagine it would ever escalate.”

It has and Craven can understand. He won’t pass judgment on the brawl last week. “I know it’s authentic. Those were real emotions. It doesn’t matter what I think. The paying customer, who is the fan, will ultimately decide (if fighting is part of racing).”

Craven is 48 years old. He’s spent the past seven seasons explaining the strategies and technology and emotions of a sport that’s not always easy to understand. “I have to get it right. I don’t always but it’s the important code I live by at ESPN.”

After walking out of the studio at the ESPN campus in Bristol, Connecticut, Craven saw Craig Bengston, an ESPN vice president and director of news.

“He shakes my hand, looks me in the eye and says, ‘Thank you, you make us better.’ ”

That’s why Craven signed a new contract with ESPN last month.

“What Ricky does best is tell you in a thoughtful manner what he sees in a language that any viewer can understand easily,” said Bengston in an email. “I always learn something from him that I didn’t know about racing. That’s the greatest compliment I can give to any analyst.”