CRAVEN MAKES OXFORD 250 HOMECOMING PLANS by Mike Twist
Maine Native Will Team Up With Johnny Clark
Every driver who makes it big in racing is proud of where they are from. The cheers are a little bit louder when they race near their home region. You even see more stickers with their car numbers on street cars and a few even own businesses back wherever home might be.
“There’s no question that I wanted to come back and race in the 250 for several years, but I haven’t been able to do it right,” said Craven. “Hooking up with Johnny Clark under these circumstances makes it the right time now.”
After the announcement was made, it was hard to tell who was most excited – Craven, Clark or Maine racing fans.
“I’m really excited about it,” said Craven. “I have not raced in Maine since 1992. That’s been too long, so I’m really excited about coming home.”
“I’m really excited for this,” said Clark. “For him to make it as far as he has in the sport and to be able to come back to the Oxford 250 is pretty awesome.”
There are so many reasons for the excitement. First is the history of Craven and the 250. He won the race in 1991 and in doing so made a big career step. The attention that he gained in capturing the race helped to line up a Cup ride with Dick Moroso at Rockingham before the season was out and turned into a Rookie of the Year campaign the next season in the NASCAR Busch Series.
Ricky Craven is a proud New Englander. (51 Photo)
“Without question, the Oxford 250 in 1991, because it was a combination race, helped me to move South and helped my progression in the sport,” said Craven. “It had a tremendous impact. I think back to that particular race and we were the only Busch North team in the top 10. Although there weren’t 100 cars attempting to qualify like in years past, the field was still very stout. There was a lot of talent including Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte. It was a big deal. It was a big deal for my career, but it was an even bigger deal for me personally.”
“When he won the 250 in 1991, that pretty much started to propel his career right there,” said Clark. “1992 was his last 250 and for us to be the team to bring Ricky back to where he started at Oxford is pretty special. My Dad is proud and we are all very excited.”
Then there is the history. Clark can remember being a kid at the racetrack, watching Craven compete.
Johnny Clark used to be a kid who watched Ricky Craven race. Now, he'll be his teammate.
But when it comes to Ricky Craven and his home region of New England, it’s always been more than that. His cheering section in races at New Hampshire International Speedway has rivaled that of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He’s always managed to work references of the Boston Red Sox and Maine’s Moosehead Lake into TV interviews. Now, the two-time NASCAR Nextel Cup race winner is gearing up for a return to where he took the got his first taste of national race attention 15 years ago – the Oxford 250.
It was announced on Wednesday that Craven will race in July’s TD Banknorth 250 for PASS standout Johnny Clark. It was something that was a long time coming.
“I was born in 1979 and I remember Ricky back in 1986 and 1987 when he ran Wiscasset Raceway and raced against my Dad,” said Clark. “He drove the red and white #12 car. That’s when he was just starting out. To have been a little kid and watched him move up through the sport as I got older was pretty cool.”
Craven has a few memories of sitting in grandstands as a young man as well.
“I sat in the grandstand with my family in 1977 when Don Biederman won, I watched Bob Pressley win in ’79, Tom Rosati in ’80 and Bodine in ’81 and on and on. The Oxford 250 has been such a big part of my life going back to the early days.”
There is the opportunity to renew old friendships and rivalries. When Craven was a rookie in Busch North racing during the 1990 season, he finished third in the standings. Just 12 points ahead of him that year was Mike Rowe.
Things haven’t changed much in 15 seasons. In 2005, Craven won a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Martinsville and Rowe won the 250. Now, they’ll get to battle for this year’s 250 crown.
“Mike is unbelievable,” said Craven. “He is an incredible racer. Knowing that Mike won the race last year for the third time and knowing how competitive he is at his age. There are two things that got my attention last year. One was Mike Rowe winning the Oxford 250 and the other was Dave Dion winning the Busch North race at Oxford. I sat in the grandstand watching those guys win races when I was eight, nine, ten or eleven years old. Those are great memories of two great racecar drivers. I’m looking forward to sharing a few laughs with Mike and racing door to door with him.”
This 1991 hero card shows Craven's Oxford 250 winning #25 ride. Back then, the Oxford 250 was a NASCAR Busch Series race.
The deal for Craven to drive for the Clark family team did not happen overnight. It wasn’t a product of a marketing deal or a case of who had an open ride available. It developed from Craven taking Clark under his wing last season before and during the Roush Racing “Driver X” search for young talent. Craven was driving for Roush in the Truck Series at the time and Clark was hoping to be picked for a Truck ride with the organization. Things didn’t work out and neither driver is associated with Roush Racing this season, but a friendship remains.
“He made the first phone call to me last June saying that he had heard a lot of good things about me and that he would support me through the Driver X process,” said Clark. “Ever since then, we haven’t gone a month without talking. We stayed right in touch and that’s pretty cool. I don’t feel so much that I’m talking to Ricky Craven anymore. I can pick up the phone and ask him what’s going on and just talk.”
“My friends back home told me about Johnny and made it clear that he had talent to make it in this sport,” said Craven. “He has really confirmed that in the last few years with his success. When we met, Johnny and I hit it off. When I first entertained the thought of coming back and racing, I didn’t know how I would do it or who I would do it with. Bill [Ryan] offered a few suggestions and it became logical for me to work with Johnny for a few reasons. I’ve built a friendship with him in the last year and I admire his enthusiasm. Also, he’s from Mid State Maine and I have connections to that area.”
Craven will have to contend with Clark (#54) and Mike Rowe (#24) at Oxford. (Norm Marx Photo)
But for now, there are 250 green flag laps on the evening of July 30th that are the top priority.
“There is so much excitement and prestige associated with that race,” said Craven. “I just can’t wait to get back there.”
And who knows, this relationship could expand beyond the 250 down the road. Craven wants to re-establish himself in NASCAR Nextel Cup racing and Clark is ambitious to get there. Maybe the young gun and the veteran with the winning record could unite in a situation at the top levels of the sport.
“We haven’t discussed anything so far, but that is something that I’d like to bring up to him,” said Clark. “You never know. It’s a relationship that has gotten to be pretty good and I’ve thought of different scenarios. We can talk about what he has for plans and what I have for plans. We’re both at the point where we don’t have much going on and we would both chose to do different things. We’re both looking for a big ride.”
Clark will be putting the finishing touches on a new Port City car for Craven to race under the Clark Racing banner and when they get to the track in a few months to start testing, the dup should make good teammates.
“I’m excited for him to be able to come up in May and get fitted in the new car,” said Clark. “We’ll be able to spend a few days together and just talk. I’d like to tell him that direction that I would like to head in and maybe he can help me out.”
“I think that we’ll be good teammates,” said Craven. “I’m looking forward to racing with him and I’ve got some catching up to do. I have not been in that type of car for a long, long time. I haven’t raced at Oxford for a long, long time and I’m concerned. I have some work to do. He’s going to be a big help to me.”
Last season, the Clark team fielded a second car for the Pullen 300 at Beech Ridge. Racer X contestant Michael Pickens wheeled their #154 that day. (51 Photo)