In the wake of the coronvavirus pandemic, NASCAR fans have been sitting and waiting for the series to return. Fans get their wish, as on Sunday, May 17th, NASCAR returns to the track. Ironically enough, NASCAR returns to Darlington Raceway, the sight of many incredible races and finishes over the tracks historic existence. However, there’s one race that stands out as one of, if not the greatest, race finishes in the sports long history.
Is it the 1979 Rebel 500, where Darrell Waltrip battled with Richard Petty on the last lap of the race to claim the victory? Nope.
Is it the 2011 Southern 500, where Regan Smith held on to claim his first and only victory in the series on old tires? No it is not.
Or is it the 1985 Southern 500, where Bill Elliott traded his nickname “Awesome Bill” for “Million Dollar Bill?” Still, no.
The most exciting finish ever is held by the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400, held on March 16th, 2003.
Let’s take you back to the year 2003, as the series had traveled to Darlington for the fifth race of the season. Elliott Sadler, driving the famous Wood Brothers No. 21, took the pole for the race. His pole winning run would serve as Sadler’s first career pole. Going into the race, Matt Kenseth held the lead in the points championship ahead of Tony Stewart. Throughout the race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon seemed primed for a top three finish. Earnhardt led a total of 91 laps in the race, the most of any driver. Earnhardt would stay near the front towards the end of the race, but would not finish in the top five. On lap 269, Gordon would brush the two turn wall. The slight damage to his car would result in another brush with the wall on lap 283 with this one however being the one that took him out of the race, as fellow driver Kenny Wallace collided with Gordon, ending his day.
Two drivers were able to get around Gordon towards the end of the race, which would set up the final run to the finish. Kurt Busch, driving the No. 97 Rubbermaid/Sharpie Ford for Roush Racing held the lead with 20 laps to go. However, a hard charging Ricky Craven, driving the No. 32 Tide Pontiac for PPI Motorsports, was closing fast on fresher tires. With ten laps to go, Busch lost power steering in his car, which had been been intermittent throughout the race. With four laps remaining, Craven caught Busch as they crossed the start finish line. With two laps to go, Craven would muscle his way to the lead, with both cars bouncing off each other and the turn one wall. Busch would regain the lead coming off of turn two, as Craven’s car broke loose. This gave Busch a large lead heading into the final lap. Craven fought back in turns three and four, and drove to the back bumper of Busch as the two crossed the finish line for the white flag.
Craven stayed close to Busch through turns one and two, and as the two drove into turn three, Craven would make his move. Busch’s car slid up the track exciting turn four, and Craven dove to the inside to set up the finish. As the two excited turn four, both collided with each other, bouncing off each other multiple times as they raced to the finish line. Busch tried to hold the lead, while Craven did his best to power to victory. At the line, it appeared that both drivers crossed the line at the same time, but that was not the case. Craven had won, by the smallest of margins. He had beat Kurt Busch by 0.002 seconds, which measures out to be four inches.
Craven stated in victory lane after the race, “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. This is exactly what you dream of. It will probably never happen again, but it’s the perfect way to win a race at the perfect track. I have always wanted to win a race here.” Busch shared a similar view, as both drivers knew they had just been part of something special and history making. “I can’t wait to go see him. That was the coolest finish I’ve ever seen, and I’m glad I got to be a part of it. This is something where we’ll slap high-fives and drink a couple beers to later on,” Busch stated after the race finish.
You can watch the highlights of the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 below:
As the two crossed the finish line, and NASCAR on Fox commentators Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip spoke about the end of the race, the two commented on the finish. These two lines of commentary summed up the finish as well as both of them could.
Mike Joy: “Have you ever?”
Darrell Waltrip: “No, I’ve never!”
Featured Image Credit: Autoweek
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