Busch and Craven were ‘two guys taking the gloves off’ at Darlington in 2003

It’ll be 10 years late next week since the thrilling finish between Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven at Darlington, but it still brings a smile to both their faces.

Speaking to the media on Tuesday, both Busch and Craven retold of that magical day in which they crossed the finish line virtually linked together. Craven declared the winner by just 0.002 seconds, the closest in NASCAR history since the sport went to electronic timing and scoring, and a finish that was recently tied at Talladega in 2011.

“The most memorable part has to have been just the way the cars came to the finish line,” said Busch. “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.

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“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.”

Busch did at least. For Craven, who now an ESPN broadcaster won’t be racing this weekend as the Sprint Cup Series heads back to the fabled speedway, it was just about winning. The victory was the second and last of his career.

“Well, I have to say that when I won, it was really all about winning at Darlington,” Craven noted. “It was absolutely that important, and the competitors that have competed at Darlington, they understand it’s different than anyplace we compete. It tests you in a way that other tracks don’t test you.”

Now retired and enjoying the NASCAR circuit from a different point of view, Craven has time to enjoy that moment so much more. It’s become a moment that will forever go down in history, along with being an instant talking point upon meeting Craven, as well as forever linking two fiery competitors in the process.

“The race has become much bigger to me than just the trophy. It wasn’t about on that day, it wasn’t 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,” he said.

“What’s important to me, and maybe I hadn’t expressed it enough, 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.”

Darlington hasn’t seen a finish since the Busch vs. Craven battle. On that day Busch had a comfortable lead with five laps to go, but Craven started to chip away at it in large doses. With three laps to go he had caught Busch and that’s when the race took a memorable turn.

There was side-by-side racing, Busch hitting the wall, paint traded and cross over moves. Craven’s car was so strong in turns three and four that Busch was never able to get away and as they took the white flag Craven was filling his mirror and soon they were battling to be the first to the checkered flag, bouncing off each other and refusing to lose.

“The way Ricky and I raced, it’s amazing we didn’t wreck each other, and just hand the win over to a third place running guy,” Busch said. “That day it was Dave Blaney. To take the gloves off, I knew Ricky was going to catch me. I just knew it.

“I had power steering issues, and lap after lap he’s ticking away not two-tenths to three-tenths, he’s ticking away a half a second quicker than us. And it was just, all right, if you can do the math, you now he’s going to catch you with about two to go, three to go, and I’m like I don’t know what I’m going to do when he catches me. But he doesn’t know I’m going through all this hardship, so maybe I can catch him by surprise and at least juke him for a lap and a half.”

Craven admits that Busch did catch him by surprise, by racing him as hard as he did going into turn one. And Craven didn’t know that Busch was battling his car, just that he was battling to keep the lead and the win.

“It’s pretty clear that with two or three to go, we both made the decision that we’re going to win this race, and we went about it in different ways,” Craven said

“But in the end, it just came down to a few inches. You don’t script it. It’s not something that you plan for. It’s not something that, as much as I want to say that all my short track days back in New England prepared me for it, they didn’t. For the last few laps, I can tell you there were two guys that emptied the tank. And it’s the only reason I can explain Kurt walking across the garage to join me in Victory Lane and celebrate is because he had emptied the tank, like I had.

“And, hell, at the end of the day, what is there to complain about? You did everything you could do. I mean, really, I think that’s what that race represents.”

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