Chicagoland: GM Racing Friday report

Riding the emotional rollercoaster to Chicagoland Joliet, Ill., July 11, 2003 -- Momentum is a tricky thing, and Ricky Craven has seen both sides of it over the last few NASCAR Winston Cup races. As the driver of the No. 32 Tide Pontiac out of...

Riding the emotional rollercoaster to Chicagoland

Joliet, Ill., July 11, 2003 -- Momentum is a tricky thing, and Ricky Craven has seen both sides of it over the last few NASCAR Winston Cup races. As the driver of the No. 32 Tide Pontiac out of car owner Cal Wells' PPI Motorsports stable, Craven has been as high as it gets this season, and as low.

The high mark came March 16 at South Carolina's venerable Darlington Raceway, when he raced his way into Victory Lane by literally beating Kurt Busch to the line in a fender-banging, hard-charging, rough-and-tumble ride. Craven's margin of victory that day was a stunning .002 seconds. It was his second victory and the second for Wells, and his first in a Pontiac. The low mark, judging simply by finishing order, came last Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. Craven was one of 10 cars caught up in a lap-74 crash triggered by a spinning Busch, and the damage to the orange Pontiac Grand Prix was extensive enough that Craven was able to complete just five more laps before being forced to park it for the night.

"I was a victim," said the 37-year-old driver from Newburgh, Maine. "It's not that unusual. Four times a year we race on these restrictor-plate tracks, and you have to expect it when you least expect it, and that was the case here. I really didn't expect that to happen on new tires among the leaders. It's usually in the middle of the pack, three-wide, something like that."

Superspeedway racing with restrictor plates makes for a strange set of circumstances, Craven said. "The cars take a while to get going and they take quite a while to get slowed down," he said. "The tires are hard and you really just can't slow down for something like that. You just have to hope you find a clear avenue and the Tide Pontiac didn't. We got crunched up."

No restrictor plates are necessary at Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval carved out of the Illinois countryside south of the mean streets of Chicago. Craven is hoping that the chance in scenery will also bring about a change in luck.

Beginning at Dover in June, Craven started to regain the stride that propelled him to victory at Darlington. He finished eighth on the Monster Mile, then followed that up with a 10th-place run at Pocono the following week. At Michigan, Craven was sailing along in the top five within sight of the leaders when the lapped car of Greg Biffle got together with Tony Stewart's Chevrolet Monte Carlo, directly in front of him. Craven had no place to go and slammed into the rear of Biffle's car, damaging the nose of his Grand Prix. Several trips to pit lane saw repairs affected, but Craven could climb no higher than 15th before the checkered flag waved. A 15th-place finish is nothing to cry over, but in light of what might have been, it sure looked like a disappointing result.

A 21st-place effort at Sonoma aside, Craven came to Daytona riding high on the strength of his team's performances in the previous four races. The crash seemed to take care of that, however, and he is looking to Chicago with an eye toward tilting the playing field more to his liking.

"I feel good about this team," Craven said. "These guys continue to bounce back. They are very resilient. We came out of the gates [at the beginning of the season] fast, and hot. We got a win early in the season [at Darlington]. We ran well at Talladega, which was nice, because that was a weak link for us. We didn't run well at a few places we expected to, but we recovered from that and followed those two bad runs with two top 10s."

Craven said it was the races in which the team did not run well that pumped his bunch up. "That's the sign of a good team," he remarked. "You always judge yourself and your team by how well they bounce back after a couple of bad races. This team has stepped up to the plate and performed. I'm also very excited about the potential that we have for the second half. If we meet our expectations, it will put us in the top 10 at season's end."

Currently, Craven is 17th in the points, 720 behind leader Matt Kenseth. He was 14th coming into Daytona, and the crash caused him to lose those three spots. He has the one victory, three top-five finishes and five in the top 10. Saturday's DNF was just his third of the season.

When the Tropicana 400 gets the green flag on Sunday, Craven will be looking for the momentum meter to peg in a positive manner toward a strong second-half showing.

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Greg Biffle , Kurt Busch