June 24, 2018
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Ex-NASCAR driver Ricky Craven looking forward to pace car duty at Loudon

Mark Gaier | ESPN
Mark Gaier | ESPN
Ricky Craven
By Larry Mahoney, BDN Staff

LOUDON, N.H. — Newburgh native Ricky Craven had a humorous take on a special moment coming up for him on Sunday afternoon at the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

It marks the 20th anniversary of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Craven will drive the pace car to start the race.

“Hopefully, I won’t bring out the first caution,” quipped Craven, who is an in-studio analyst for ESPN on “NASCAR Now” and also handles pre-race and post-race analysis.

Craven also will serve as color commentator on Nationwide Series races at Iowa Speedway (Aug. 4), Montreal (Aug. 18) and Kentucky (Sept. 22).

Craven didn’t run the first Sprint Cup race at Loudon but he did run the first NASCAR race, which was in the Nationwide Series in July 1990.

“I was involved in a crash with three or four other cars including Bobby Labonte and Jamie Aube,” recalled Craven.

Tommy Ellis won the race.

Craven ran 17 Sprint Cup races at NHMS and had two poles, a top-five and two top-10 finishes. His best finish was fifth in 1997 and he had six top-20 finishes.

He ran nine Nationwide races at Loudon and had a win (1991), two poles, two top-five and four top-10 finishes. In 13 K and N Pro Series East (formerly Busch North) races, he collected three wins, seven top-fives, 10 top-10s and three poles.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway is a special place for Craven.

“I was close to [former owner] Bob and [wife] Sandy Bahre and I’ve known [son] Gary forever,” said Craven. “I watched it being built. I’m a New England boy and my daughter, Riley, was born in Concord.”

Craven’s wife, K.K., is from Concord.

“It’s my home,” said Craven. “In a perfect world, I would have won a Cup race there. But I didn’t.

“Every time I went there I felt like I was playing in Boston Garden or Fenway Park,” added Craven. “The fans treated me like I was a Sprint Cup champion. I never got that anywhere else. The fans were loyal to me.”

One day at Loudon he will never forget occurred in 1998.

He was driving the No. 50 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports and had missed the previous 12 races because of post-concussion syndrome after several crashes.

He wound up winning the pole, edging out Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.

“That was one of the more emotional times in my career. I didn’t really know if I’d ever get back in a car,” said Craven. “I knew we had a great lap and I saw the people lined up against the fence and on pit road react to it.

“Jeff Gordon ran out of his trailer. He was the first to congratulate me and I had knocked him off the pole,” said Craven. “Dale Jarrett also came over.

“You fight tooth and nail against 42 other guys but this was one of the few times in your career where you see the flip side of that,” added Craven, who collected two wins, 17 top-fives and 41 top-10s in his Sprint Cup career of 278 races from 1991 to 2004.

Craven is just the 15th driver in history to win in NASCAR’s top three series (Sprint Cup, Nationwide Series, Craftsman Trucks).

He continues to enjoy his ESPN stint. He signed a multiyear deal with the network earlier this year.

“I appreciate being involved. I love the camaraderie,” said the 46-year-old Craven, who is on vacation with his family at their home in Greenville.

Craven considers Jimmie Johnson the man to beat for the Sprint Cup points title this year.

Johnson’s five-year reign as points champion ended last year when Tony Stewart captured the title.

Johnson is now fourth in points.

But one driver Craven said to watch is Brad Keselowski.

“I’m really impressed with the dynamic of the relationship between Keselowski and [crew chief] Paul Wolfe,” said Craven. “They’re along the lines of Gordon and [Ray] Evernham and Johnson and Chad Knaus. They’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

Keselowski is tied for most wins this season with Stewart.

Stewart also will be a contender and Craven said Dale Earnhardt Jr. , who ended a 143-race winless drought when he won at Michigan International Speedway last month, could be in the mix.

Earnhardt is second in points, 25 behind Matt Kenseth, and Stewart is fifth.

“[Earnhardt Jr.] is a different person right now. His frame of mind is as good as I’ve ever seen it,” said Craven. “A lot of credit goes to [crew chief] Steve Letarte. He has handled Junior like no one else. I admire Junior for climbing up from the depths of desperation.”

Letarte is from Cornish and is Gordon’s former crew chief.

Letarte will be one of two Maine natives who is a crew chief in the Cup series. Biddeford’s Slugger Labbe is the other and he is with driver Paul Menard, who is 13th in points.

Menard and Labbe teamed up to win the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last season.

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