In Honor Of Throwback Weekend At Darlington, A Look Back At The Closest Finish In NASCAR Cup Series History

It’s throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway.

NASCAR teams are running throwback paint schemes this weekend honoring some of the greatest drivers in the sport’s history.

So we thought we’d take this opportunity to throw it back to the closest finish in NASCAR Cup Series history – which also came at The Track Too Tough to Tame in the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400.

Kurt Busch, who had started the day in 42nd after changing an engine before the race, took the lead on lap 269 of the 293-lap race. And with 17 to go, the 2nd place car of Elliot Sadler brushed the outside wall, allowing Ricky Craven to pass him in his #32 Tide ride, with Dave Blaney on his heels in third.

Busch managed to jump out to a 3-second lead and looked to be on his way to the win – but Craven had managed to save his tires, and The Lady In Black is a track known for being hard on tires late into green-flag runs.

Then, with 10 laps to go, Busch’s power steering failed on his #97 Sharpie car, allowing Craven to pull up to Busch’s bumper with 3 laps to go. The pair crossed the finish line with two to go side by side, and Craven put Busch into the wall going into turn one to take the lead.

Busch then tapped Craven on the bumper and pulled a crossover move to regain the lead coming out of turn two, with Blaney stalking the two leaders and ready to capitalize on any mistake they made.

On the last lap, Craven pulled beside Busch in turn four coming to the checkered flag, and his car drifted up into the side of Busch as the two cars locked together out of the last turn.

Beating and banging as they raced towards the finish line, the cars crossed the finish line side by side in a photo finish – with Ricky Craven edging out Kurt Busch by a mere .002 seconds. That’s TWO ONE THOUSANDTHS of a second.

It was the closest finish in NASCAR Cup Series history, a record that’s still never been broken (though it’s been tied when Jimmie Johnson edged out Clint Bowyer by the same margin in 2011 at Talladega).

It remains one of the all-time greatest finishes in NASCAR history – and it also happens to be the first race that I ever saw in person. I can still remember sitting in the grandstands just past the start-finish line as a 14-year old, having no idea who actually won the race but knowing that I just saw one of the best finishes of all-time in NASCAR.

Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven also sat down together back in 2018 to break down the iconic finish.

As Craven put it, “We took each other as far as you can,” with Busch interjecting, “at a track that you’re not supposed to be doing that on.”

Craven also describes the moment when he was in Victory Lane and saw Busch, who had a reputation at the time for being a bit of a hothead, walking towards him by himself. And as Craven admitted, he didn’t know how Busch was going to react.

“I saw Kurt coming across the garage all by yourself and I thought, ‘I don’t know how this is going to go.’ 

And if we end up wrestling, I don’t want it in front of my kids.

So I walk out of Victory Lane, and it’s almost like the wild west. We’re going toward each other, and at the last second, Kurt goes, ‘That was awesome!’ And we just celebrated.” 

The 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 remains one of the most memorable and iconic finishes in NASCAR history, and still holds the record for the closest finish ever in the Cup Series. And the Lady in Black continues to produce some of the best racing in the series year after year.

So on this throwback weekend, it’s only appropriate to take some time to appreciate the great racing that Darlington has given us over the years.

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