April 24, 2013
If Ricky Craven was a 16-year-old kid again but had the knowledge of the 47-year-old man he is today, would he have chased his dream? Or would the path from the tiny Maine town of Newburgh to NASCAR's palaces of speed been too daunting?
Craven laughs at a question to which there is no true answer. Thank heavens for the ignorance of youth. "Knowing what I know now, I'm afraid it would have been so discouraging."
That's not saying he would have tried another career.
Craven won Sprint Cup races at two of NASCAR's toughest tracks at Martinsville, Va., and Darlington, S.C., over an 11-year career racing at the sport's highest level. He finished third in the 1997 Daytona 500 behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte. He was the Sprint Cup rookie of the year in 1995, bringing many Maine fans to NASCAR for the first time.
In two weeks, Craven will join nine others for induction into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame. They are coaches and a doctor. A basketball player, power lifter, boxing trainer and football quarterback. Separate achievements, separate identities, shared passion. When challenged, they believed in themselves.
"Along the way with the discouragements and fighting the headwinds, it galvanizes you," said Craven. Meaning, sink or swim. Go after the dream or let it fade, always questioning why.
It's a good bet all 10 of the 2013 inductees were knocked down. Craven maybe most of all. Certainly his falls were more visible. The two hellacious crashes, first at Talladega when his car got airborne and flew into the catch fencing by the grandstand. The television cameras pulled away from the scene quickly, fearing the worst.
There was the crash at Texas and the head injuries that put him on the shelf at exactly the time he needed to further establish himself with Hendrick, one of the top multicar teams in the sport. After a glorious return at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, winning the pole, he was let go. The gloom of damaged goods followed him.
Craven persevered through bad owners or bad cars or both. Car owner Cal Wells found him, saying one had to look down to see that the rock that was kicked was in fact a diamond. The underfunded, single-car team with the Tide sponsorship struggled. But in 2003, Craven beat Kurt Busch across the finish line at Darlington by inches, the closest finish in NASCAR history.
Those last two laps, when both drivers drove their cars hard and into each other banging sheet metal, was Craven's career in microcosm. He wouldn't surrender.
"My level of passion and commitment was at a pretty high level," said Craven, now an ESPN race analyst.
"That's a key component. Ultimately you will your way to victory lane."