Originally created 07/12/98

Craven's drama center stage at Loudon



LOUDON, N.H. -- While Ricky Craven realizes the drama of his qualifying effort will be difficult to duplicate, he'll have a chance to do just that Sunday in the Jiffy Lube 300.

"If I'm in the picture with 20 laps to go, then I'm a threat because I know how to get around here," he said Saturday, 24 hours after stealing the pole from teammate Jeff Gordon. "But the strategy of the first 280 laps will decide that."

And if Craven is in position to win, he will write the final words of a story that seems too good to be true. As the final car to qualify, Craven thrilled the crowd at New Hampshire International Speedway by taking the top spot with his first competitive Winston Cup lap in four months.

A day later, he laughed at the suggestion of a fix, one borne by circumstances that included running the lap at his home track after recovering from a head injury.

"If I were a fan, I would make that statement, too," he said. "It was too perfect. But if you were riding with me, you would know better."

What Craven did was negotiate a track slickened and devoid of rubber because of a torrential downpour. His effort won the admiration of the other drivers.

"To be the last car to go out and get the pole in his hometown where he has a lot of fans was just great," said Gordon, who will start alongside Craven. "To take a step back to take a step forward looks like it paid off for him."

Gordon was alluding to Craven's decision to step out of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet because of post-concussion syndrome from crashes over the years. Craven believes he did the right thing, and insists he's not concerned about injuries.

"I swear I don't think about it," he said. "I am so focused and I just want to race.

"Under these conditions as slick as the track was when you have to run the car on the edge, you can't do that without a tremendous level of concentration. But I accept the fact that if there's an unfortunate scenario, then I might have to go through the same thing as before.

"Wrecks will happen. I'll be in some more before my career is over."

Like virtually all the drivers, Dale Jarrett, who will start third Sunday in a Ford, is rooting for Craven to have a great race.

"This is a great story," said Jarrett, the first to congratulate Craven for his magnificent run. "It couldn't have been written any better. We do realize that at any point it (a major injury) could happen to any of us."

If Craven could author the final chapter, it would include a last-lap battle with Gordon, his close friend. Craven is excited because he knows there would be no charity involved.

"There probably aren't two drivers closer than Jeff and I," Craven said. "But he wouldn't give me anything, and I wouldn't expect anything.

"But it's a bit premature to say I want to beat Jeff or Dale Jarrett or Mark Martin. I just want to win."

It would be the first victory for the 32-year-old from Newburgh, Maine. It would set off a celebration never seen at the track where Craven made his mark as a big-time driver with victories in the NASCAR Busch North and Busch Grand National series.

While Craven concedes his status as the winningest big-car driver in the track's nine-year history makes him a legitimate contender, he is taking a realistic approach.

"I always think that it takes almost a perfect day to win," he said. "But if we have that kind of day, there'll be a big party."

Principal among the celebrants would be driver Kyle Petty.

"Everybody likes to see somebody who's coming back from adversity do good," he said.