The Darlington finish that withstood the test of time

Darlington Stripe

Darlington is known as the track too tough to tame, and it’s almost considered an insult to not hit the wall at some point during the race weekend. Mostly because if you don’t hit it at least once, then you probably aren’t trying hard enough.

The track opened in 1950 and hosted NASCAR’s first ever 500 mile race. Hard on tires and even harder on drivers, Darlington is a race that everyone wants to win. It’s a tough ask to even get the cars to the finish line, as Kyle Busch unfortunately learned while leading in the closing laps of the 2022 Southern 500.

Sunday’s race may not be the crown jewel that the Southern 500 it is, but the 400-miler still ranks high on the list of accomplishments for any driver. They want to win it just as badly, and that was never more apparent than 20 years ago on March 16th, 2003.

So in the spirit of throwback weekend, let’s take a look back one one of the most iconic finishes in NASCAR history. 

Darlington Stripe

Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images

With 30 laps to go, Kurt Busch was running third and Ricky Craven fourth, but the order was getting ready to rapidly change.

As Jeff Gordon and Elliott Sadler faded, Busch and Craven rose to the front. Sadler bounced off the wall trying to hold Craven back, and Gordon actually had to pit after he got into the wall and suffered damage.

The race remained green, leaving Busch and Craven to settle it amongst themselves on aging tires. Dave Blaney lurked not too far behind as well, hoping to capitalize on any chaos and potentially earn his first ever NASCAR Cup Series victory.

Busch was 24 years old and in his third full-time year of competition. He was no stranger to Victory Lane, with four wins in the previous season. Craven was 36, and had just one win in 220 Cup starts.

The final two laps of that race are ones many NASCAR fans remember as if it they had only happened yesterday, able to quote the excellent commentary verbatim. The rising voices in the FOX Sports booth would make even the most casual race fan understand something worth watching was about to happen.

Craven peaked to the inside of Busch entering Turn 1 with three laps remaining, but thought better of it. 

After diamonding Turns 3 and 4, Craven pulled alongside Busch as the flagman gave the two-to-go signal. This time, he was committed to the move.

“Somebody’s gotta give into Turn 1,” called out Larry McReynolds. But neither driver was willing to back down now.

Craven slid sideways and Busch…

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