Rain pelted the track at Richmond two Fridays ago without a wisp
of sunshine on the horizon. Former Winston Cup Rookie of the
Year Ricky Craven gazed outside his trailer window, looking for
his own break in the clouds. "I'm a realist," said Craven, who
averaged one top 10 finish every 5.75 races in the first three
years of his career, 1995 through '97, "and the reality is that
I was closer to winning a race in 1997 than I am now."
In '97 he had two third-place finishes and two fifth-place
showings. But last year he was sidelined for 12 races with
postconcussion syndrome, the residual effect of a horrific crash
during practice at Texas Motor Speedway in April '97. His
coveted spot with NASCAR's elite Hendrick Motorsports team, for
whom Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte had claimed the last three
Winston Cup titles, appeared tenuous. Craven, 32 at the time,
wondered whether "the life I'd always dreamed of could be over."
A native of Newburgh, Maine, Craven made his return to racing
last July at his de facto home track, New Hampshire
International. The last of 44 drivers to attempt to qualify, he
won the pole, snatching it from Gordon, who high-fived his
teammate as Craven pulled his Chevy Monte Carlo onto pit row.
This is the perfect script, Craven thought to himself.
Four races later, following finishes of 19th at New Hampshire,
41st at Pocono, 17th at the Brickyard 400 and 35th at the Bud at
the Glen, Craven was dropped from the Hendrick team. After
investing 17 years of his life in racing cars and being named
rookie of the year on five circuits, Craven was unemployed. "If
I've ever been depressed in my life," says Craven, who is
married with two children, "it would have been in 1998."
Craven chose to stop driving in April '98, following a scary
episode involving his equilibrium. "I was flying in a small
plane, just me and the pilot, when we went through some clouds,"
says Craven. "After a few moments I was white-knuckling, asking,
'Why are we flying upside down?' We weren't, of course--I just
had lost my equilibrium." Doctors diagnosed postconcussion
syndrome after Craven scored 26% on an inner-ear balance exam.
"There's a fine line between playing hurt and prolonging an
injury," says Craven. "A guy like my idol, Carlton Fisk,
might've said, 'Toughen up, kid.' But I did what I thought was
best for me and for Hendrick Motorsports."
Craven, whose New England background already distanced him from
many of his Southern-reared NASCAR peers, was something of a
pariah when he returned to the track in July and raced so
poorly. He wondered if he had lost his focus. Others did, too.
"Ricky had always been such an energetic guy before the
crashes," says a former associate producer for ESPN. "We did an
interview with him when he returned, and in one spot, in the
middle of a sentence, he paused for nine seconds. We were
worried about him."
Last November Craven hooked up with neophyte owner Scott Barbour
of Pittsburgh, who owns an aircraft engine supply company. In 11
races in Barbour's Ford Taurus this season, Craven on average
has qualified 30th and finished 32nd, including a 19th at
Richmond--the 20th consecutive race in which he failed to crack
the top 10. "But I remember something [fellow driver] Jeff
Burton told me after I split with Hendrick last season," Craven
says. "He grabbed me by both shoulders, looked me straight in
the eyes and said, 'You know you haven't forgotten how to do
this.' Deep down, I believe that he's right."
COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN