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A decade gone, Darlington finish still vivid

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It will go down as a modern day NASCAR classic, an edge-of-the-seat, fist-pumping, bang 'em up, duel-to-the-end worthy of the sport's "Best Of" highlight reels and reminiscent of it's most iconic checkered flag drama between legends like Petty and Pearson, Yarbrough and Allison.

It's been 10 years since Ricky Craven essentially willed his car to a photo-finish win over Kurt Busch at Darlington Raceway, site of this week's Southern 500. But their door-slamming swerve-and-slide dramatic final laps from that 2003 race are still considered one of NASCAR's greatest moments of pure competition.

After reliving the day hundreds of times over with fans and reporters through the years since, Craven and Busch will still be telling their grandchildren about their high-drama mark decades from now. It may be a classic but the story never gets old.

Its .002-second margin of victory -- the length of a spark plug -- is the closest since NASCAR began using electronic scoring in 1993 and has been equaled just once, in a three-wide finish at Talladega Superspeedway two years ago. 

 "The most memorable part has to have been just the way the cars came to the finish line,'' Busch said this week. "But to tell the story as many times as I have over the last 10 years, it gets better and better each year, it just puts a smile on your face when you know you gave it your all and the guy that you were racing, a competitor, he gave it his all, and the two of us put on a show.

"That's what the fans want to see, and at the end of the day, two guys taking the gloves off, going after it and producing such a solid finish, I think we both knew right away we were part of something special.''

It was a stand-up battle of wills and machine between Busch, then a hard-charging 24-year old out to prove he belonged in NASCAR's big leagues and Craven, then a 35-year old veteran proving he still belonged in NASCAR's big leagues.

It was an exhibition of respect and grit; talent and determination.

Since that race, Busch, who now drives the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy, has visited Victory Lane 20 times and hoisted the 2004 Cup championship trophy. That Darlington race was the final Cup victory for Craven, however, who retired following the next season and is now a popular announcer on ESPN's NASCAR telecasts.

"The race has become much bigger to me than just the trophy,'' Craven said this week, the two drivers often speaking with one another during a joint teleconference with the media.

"It wasn't about being a fan of mine, it wasn't necessarily about being a fan of Kurt, it was really about being a fan of racing, because since I've retired, it seems as though it's all that anybody wants to talk about when I cross paths with them.

"What's important to me, and maybe I hadn't expressed it enough, but I want to express it right off the top, is Kurt and I, like most competitors, we test each other every week, every seven days, and it's not that important to be friends.  You know, as competitors, it's just not that important.  But this race, this one day, has definitely brought Kurt and I together as friends, and I think that's kind of unique, and it needs to be acknowledged.''

And there is another element to the race that both drivers recognize as well. It wasn't just the statistically tight finish that has put this race in the history books. What distinguishes this spectacular finish among NASCAR's long list of other spectacular finishes was the incredibly dramatic racing between the two drivers -- and that it took place at one of NASCAR's most iconic venues, the notoriously temperamental 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval.

"Well, I have to say that when I won, it was really all about winning at Darlington,'' Craven said this week. "It was absolutely that important, and the competitors that have competed at Darlington, they understand it's different than any place we compete.  It tests you in a way that other tracks don't test you.''

Beyond the attention the finish earned and the drivers received, it served as a well-timed reminder of Darlington's special place in the sport, which was in the midst of a 1.5-mile track building boom and NASCAR's massive expansion to new markets.

"It's critical that we look at Darlington the same way that baseball looks at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, because geographically it might not be perfect,'' Craven said. "If you look at the design of the racetrack from an aerial view, it might not be perfect. 

"But what I described earlier and the way that the track tests the driver, there's not a driver that's carried a NASCAR license that wouldn't rank the track among the toughest that they've ever competed at.  And that means something, and it's important that the fans understand that, and I think that they've certainly gotten that message loud and clear because of the way the drivers approach that weekend.

"I'm not nearly bold enough to say that that one race was a turning point, but I am realistic enough to say that at the end of the day, people buy into a product because they want value or they want an experience; they want something that sticks with them.

"If they're going to spend their hard?earned money, they want something that they can feel like they've invested in, and that's what that race represents, I think.''

Added Busch, "I think that day it was just something special and it was two men that gave everything they were worth. If there was a loser, it was fine, because I gave it everything I had."

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