Craven's future is bright again By Matthew Leach November 27, 1999 - Numbers don't lie in NASCAR racing. But if you look too closely at the wrong numbers, it's easy to be misled. No one exemplified that better in 1999 than Ricky ...
Craven's future is bright again By Matthew Leach
November 27, 1999 - Numbers don't lie in NASCAR racing. But if you look too closely at the wrong numbers, it's easy to be misled. No one exemplified that better in 1999 than Ricky Craven.
Craven's car number with Midwest Transit Racing -- 50 -- is the same as it was last year, when he drove for Hendrick Motorsports, though two teams could hardly be more different. Then there are his season statistics: 24 starts, no top-10 finishes and only two top-20s -- which seem to indicate a terrible season for a former rookie of the year.
To the Maine native, however, one number tells the story of his season: 12. That's how many consecutive races he and his fledgling team made despite having no provisionals, no primary sponsor and no past notes to go by. Craven and the 50 team missed the season finale at Atlanta, but even 12-for-13 ain't too bad given the circumstances.
"What we've done isn't pretend," Craven said before the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "Twelve-for-12 is an accomplishment, but we need to build on that. That's not enough. We do believe in one another. And I haven't felt this good about a team for a while.
"Confidence always comes from results. You can talk about it and it won't help. And you can hope for it and it won't help. But if you do it, it helps."
Craven has had to adjust his goals since joining the Midwest Transit team. In his first three seasons on the circuit, with Larry Hedrick and then with Hendrick, he racked up seven top-5 finishes and 16 top-10s. He finished 19th in points in 1997 and seemed to be one of the sport's rising stars.
But injuries -- most recently and most significantly post-concussion syndrome -- hampered him. Further, his results in 1998 were disappointing even when he did race, with only one top-10 in 11 starts. He parted ways with Hendrick late in the '98 season, and found himself without a ride entering '99.
He hooked up with Scott Barbour's SBIII team for '99 and ran admirably considering that team's lack of a primary sponsor. The No. 58 Ford made 12 of the first 13 races and Craven started in the top-10 twice. He finished 19th in Richmond at May. But SBIII released him after the June event at Dover Downs, and three weeks later he joined the Midwest Transit team, which up to that point had qualified for only one NASCAR Winston Cup Series event in its history.
Since then, the battle has been to make races. Good finishes, when they come, are a luxury because the team can't afford to be off in the slightest in Bud Pole Qualifying. Craven says that for his team, just making the show is like finishing in the top-5 or top-10 for the sport's elite teams.
"I think you have to think that way," Craven said. "Because us qualifying is equal to them having a good performance. In '96 and 97 we came close to winning. Rockingham, Darlington, New Hampshire, Rockingham again in 97, Charlotte. But I haven't had that in a while. And that's tough.
"Honestly it hurts, but you've gotta get over it. Because I believe the only way that I'm gonna get back there is to work as hard as these guys are working, meaning my team, and retain that focus. Focus is everything.
"We've faced some tremendous challenges: going to Indy, and Charlotte's always difficult. And really, every week, the potential exists to either miss the setup a little or for the driver to make a mistake. I think you've got to give credit to the team because you don't do it by mistake. You could maybe go two-for-two or three-for-three, but 12-for-12 at basically 10 or 11 different race tracks is a great accomplishment."
Now he and the team have to get working to match that accomplishment, and hopefully improve on it.
He has agreed to stay with Midwest Transit Racing for a full-season run in 2000, and other important elements are in place as well. Hendrick Motorsports will supply engines, and most of the key team members are expected to return.
Still, the battle is likely to get tougher rather than easier. Craven benefited some this year from choosing which tracks to attack. He didn't enter five races, staying home to concentrate on upcoming events. The team also hasn't decided what to do about Chevrolet's introduction of a new Monte Carlo. Craven is undaunted, however.
"I tell you what I'm excited about," Craven said. "I'm excited about having December and January to prepare for a full year. I know that the team needs some time off and rest. We've really really done a lot with less than some teams, and that's put a burden on them. We need to still hire some more key people. We definitely need to progress, and establish ourselves, and we need to be a top-25 team after the first half-dozen races. Without that, we have no security, just like this year.
"I'm not sure right now exactly what direction we're going (with regard to the 2000 Monte Carlo). I know that we're gonna be GM, and that's important to me and the team, but the new Monte Carlo we don't know enough about yet. We haven't had the privilege of working with that car and doing some testing. Right now the Pontiac looks pretty good. We need to determine that real soon. We've got some new Monte Carlos going together but I wouldn't rule out having a Pontiac or two.
"We could perhaps hire somebody with an existing team that would help us develop the Pontiac. The Pontiac is established, and you know what your strengths and your weaknesses are. There's gonna be a learning curve for the new Monte Carlo, and as a new young team I'm not sure that that's a position we need to be in."
Oh, and there's one other obstacle. The 50 team still doesn't have a primary sponsor inked for 2000. They made it through '99 without one, and Craven says team owner Hal Hicks is willing to stick it out another season like that. But neither driver nor team wants to try.
"It's obviously critical," Craven said of securing sponsorship. "That completes the equation. We've talked about a lot of the good things that we've been able to do, but the sponsorship is critical because it brings identity to the team. The budget right now covers the basics to be a team, but we need the extras to catch up.
"We've come a long way. He's made a lot of capital improvements to the team, and those are long-term purchases. We've got an indoor chassis dyno that is very well-equipped. The shop has changed complexion completely.
Craven would certainly rather look ahead than look back. He's having fun now, but it's been a tough season. It's been a tough couple of seasons, as a matter of fact. jjj When he missed four months in 1998 with post-concussion syndrome, people wondered whether he should have been racing over the previous 11 months since the wreck at Texas Motor Speedway in which he first injured his head. When he didn't run well upon his return, people wondered whether he would ever get back to the level he once reached.
And when he was released from SBIII, it would have been reasonable to wonder whether he would hook on again in NASCAR's top series.
Craven isn't bitter about what he's had to endure, and he doesn't regret the decisions he's made. But he admits that he gains some motivation from his doubters.
"It'd be easy to regret it because it didn't work," Craven said of his tenure with the No. 58 team. "However, it was the right decision for the time. And I feel fortunate that I've been able to have this opportunity because I'm around a lot of qualified people and good people. I feel like I've found a home. I think that they've provided me with some good equipment. They also have confidence in me being able to push the gas pedal too.
"I feel some redemption. And I still haven't done what I need to do. Ultimately I need to win a race for everybody in New England that helped me get here. I need to win a race for my family because we've won in every division we've been in."
He probably won't win in 2000 -- that's no indictment of driver or team, simply a realistic assessment. But his confidence is high, and he's found a good fit with the 50 team. If chemistry and hard work count for anything -- and in NASCAR, they count for a lot -- Craven should run well in 2000, and even better than that in the future. And before long, the numbers should show that too.