For a guy on what he refers to as his "third life," Ricky Craven doesn't seem to have slowed down since he retired from driving at Martinsville in 2006.
If anything, it seems like Craven -- perhaps best known for his side-by-side, doorhandle-banging finish with Kurt Busch to win the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway by .002 seconds -- is going faster now than he did behind the wheel.
Now a television analyst with ESPN, Craven handles both in-studio and at the track work seamlessly as if he was born for the position. And yet he admits that wasn't even part of his thought process as a kid in Newburgh, Maine.
"My first life was growing up on a farm in Maine," Craven said. "I knew no boundaries. I thought Maine was the center of the universe. And I began racing at 15, raced all through high school and that took me into my second life, which was at 200 miles an hour.
"And then when I stopped that, I entered into my third life, which is where I'm at now. It's very much about striking that balance between three children and a profession. And I really am in a good place."
Craven's photo-finish victory at Darlington turned out not only to be his last Cup win, but the last for Pontiac. One year later, he was out of Cup. He ran a full season in the Truck Series in 2005, winning at Martinsville, but his heart wasn't in it anymore.
"Funny thing is, I was out of gas at 40," Craven said. "That was sort of my goal, to race until I was 40. I missed my children so much, I couldn't stand to be away as much as I was.
"So I just took a year off and I went to Moosehead Lake, [near] our home in Maine, and sort of went into exile with my family and just recharged the batteries. I didn't have any idea what I was doing, which is very unusual for me. I've understood what I was doing my whole adult life, because I raced cars all through high school. I'm unemployed and I don't have a clue what I'm doing."
Craven's ability to explain things concisely and succinctly during a stint as a part-time pit reporter in the 1990s paid off when he began to get offers to return to television. And he realized it was a natural extension of his personality.
"It really wasn't that different from my racing career," Craven said. "You get an opportunity, you have to capitalize on it. The next opportunity is just as important, and you have to capitalize on it.
"Maybe I've been fortunate to get the opportunities, and also I've been fortunate to capitalize on them to some degree, but I really enjoy what I do. I don't enjoy the travel. But I'm in a pretty good place. It's hard being a driver and stopping. It's a different world. But I've adjusted to that."
Craven parlayed his spot as a roundtable panelist into an opportunity to go back on the road in 2010, working as an analyst for five Nationwide races. That led to additional post-race coverage duties for the final 17 Cup races of the season.
And for 2011, his schedule is getting busier. He was at Daytona for Speedweeks and will do seven Nationwide races, in addition to his usual appearances.
So what does Craven feel he brings to the broadcast? Perhaps the ability to explain not only what a driver is thinking but how he's feeling.
"There's aspects of that that nobody understands," Craven said. "The driver might not have been home for 10 days. You go from a race to a test. By the time you get done with that, you go to the next race. And you've got PR obligations and media and sponsor stuff. And so somewhere along the line, something happens.
"I understand how that can happen because I've lived it. And there are times when I'll bring that stuff up. That's the only advantage I have. I can offer that."
Craven said the most difficult part of his job is providing balanced criticism, especially when it's someone he knows well.
"I have friendships in the garage area and it's absolutely a priority that I express what I see and that I maintain that integrity," Craven said. "Because if I ever lose that, I'm done. That's the only thing that separates me from the next guy.
"I cannot allow myself to be influenced by a friendship or by a relationship. But at the same time, I've got no intention of dressing down somebody. So I've worked my way through that. That's really not been a challenge, it's not been that difficult, but it is a little bit uncomfortable at times."
As an example, Craven took Denny Hamlin to task at Dover last fall after the championship contender got into a war of words with the competition.
"Denny Hamlin is somebody I really admire," Craven said. "I admire how he's handled himself, the job he's done, he's been in the Chase every year. That deserves a lot of attention. He's also gotten better every year, and he's one of the greatest short-track racers I've ever seen. I've made that clear. I've tried to express what I think. I'm very complimentary of him.
"But then he goes to Dover and he sounds off on Richard Childress Racing. And I said, 'What the #### are you doing? What part of that is going to help you win the championship?' It makes no sense to me. That's how I said it and that's what I meant. I'm not comfortable doing that on a personal level because I don't want to offend him. But it won't matter because that's what I do. I have to do that."
Craven believes he has continued to mature since hanging up his helmet. Of course, when you're on your third life, that's almost a given.
"Like everybody else, you gain perspective as you get older," Craven said. "There's things I think back to, and say, 'Now I get it.' It's like everybody here has a job to do. And I just think that the worst thing you can do is think your job's more important than theirs. And I'll just leave it at that."http://www.nascar.com/news/110311/retro ... index.html