One-man racing acts fade away

NASCAR's big teams horde talent and resources.

Published May 15, 2007

DARLINGTON, S.C. - Ricky Craven had no time to consider whether he was driving into history. Driving into Turn 3 was enough at the moment.

Every sense was focused on this clenched-fist runaway chariot ride to the finish at Darlington Raceway as he reconciled the sound of crinkling metal from his fenders with the desire to nose his orange No. 32 Pontiac ahead of the maroon-and-silver No. 97 Ford filling up his right-side window. Then there was the realization that both of them, he and Kurt Busch, this day of March 16, 2003, were likely to wad their cars together into on-rushing Turn 1 once they finally settled this at the checkered flag.

Craven's win by .002 seconds is the closest finish in NASCAR history but also important for a lesser-known reason. That victory for Cal Wells III's PPI Motorsports remains the most recent by a single-car Nextel Cup team, and with the sport's climate favoring the privileged and killing off the small, it could be the last. The last vestiges of PPI were sold at public auction two weeks ago for "about a dime on the dollar" of their original worth, Wells said.

So ended an era.

"Both of us can look at those years and consider those the glory days now. Both of us having won our only Cup races together, " said Craven, who also won for Wells in Martinsville in 2001.

Wells said he didn't consider the win historic partly because his team had been competitive, partly because his assemblage of talent had not yet been pruned by wealthier teams.

"At the time, I didn't think the single-car team was dead, " said Wells, 51, who has two wins in 260 Nextel Cup starts since 2000. "I still felt with the resources still available you could attract high-quality talent."

PPI pollinated the series with talent as it slowly disintegrated. Craven crew chief Scott Miller resurfaced as Jeff Burton's crew chief in 2006. Chief engineer Roy McCauley became Busch's crew chief at Penske Racing last season. Doug Richert, who won a championship as Dale Earnhardt's 20-year-old crew chief in 1980, finished second in points in 2005 with Greg Biffle. He now is crew chief for Brian Vickers at Team Red Bull.

"Maybe I was oblivious to facts, but I felt like we were capable of challenging the big teams each week, and our win at Darlington confirmed that feeling, " Craven said. "From that point on, we still had a few good runs, but we really felt the effects of the headwind, the headwind created by the multicar teams and all the energy and inertia the big companies had behind them."

Craven, now an analyst for a Web site, understood the importance of what he had done as he circled the 1.36-mile track in celebration. The "headwind" that large multicar teams were creating had made the daily job of winning a chore that required near perfection from the likes of PPI, he said. But an innovative group of open wheel engineers and a cache of undiscovered stock car talents had infused this team with the feeling it could withstand the headwind.

But these were among the last of the glory days.

Craven, 15th in points in 2002 but 27th the next year despite the win, three top-fives and eight top-10s, would be replaced by Bobby Hamilton Jr., who was replaced by Travis Kvapil.

Last year, longtime NASCAR benefactor Tide opted out, leaving Wells without a primary sponsor.

Craven and Wells struggle to find fault with what they see as a healthy sport. But Craven also struggles to apply the same romantic charm to moneyed teams as PPI. Jeff Gordon's win Sunday at Darlington gave four-car Hendrick Motorsports eight wins in 11 races this season.

"I do think a lot would be lost without the underdog or the longshot, " he said. "It's a critical part of sports, and the problem I have right now is it's hard for me to view DEI or Robert Yates Racing as the longshot."

Wells, whose attempt to race this year dissolved in a court battle with sponsors, hopes to partner with an existing team or start over for 2008. The climb will be even harder with as many as 55 teams attempting to fill 43 spots and 35 guaranteed by owner points. And though NASCAR rules now limit teams to four cars it'll be no easier for a small team.

"One could say, 'Gosh, I wish there were 43 single-car teams.' " Wells said. "But the horse is really out of the barn on that, and I think the fans want great racing, which they're getting, whether Cal Wells and PPI is there or not."