- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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This will be unlike any racing homecoming Ricky Craven's ever had. And that's saying a lot, because the 38-year-old has headed to New Hampshire International Speedway under just about every circumstance imaginable.
In 1995, he raced at the one-mile facility while dueling Robert Pressley for Rookie of the Year honors, a title Craven won at season's end. A year later, the Newburgh, Maine, native won the pole -- thrilling fans who had watched Craven win Busch races there early in his career.
A season later, Craven should have been on top of the world while driving for Hendrick Motorsports, one of NASCAR's top operations. The thing is, he was trying to fight off the effects of a vicious practice crash at Texas, one that sidelined him for two races earlier in the season.
In '98, Craven benched himself for 12 races due to post-concussion syndrome. He would later make a triumphant return at NHIS by winning the pole. Still, after three more starts he parted company with the team and was considered "damaged goods" by many.
Making just 24 starts over the 1999-2000 seasons, it wasn't until Cal Wells gave Craven a shot that he returned to form. And when he came home to race at New Hampshire a day after Thanksgiving in 2001 -- the race was delayed more than two months as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks -- he came home as a winner, having edged Dale Jarrett in a remarkable duel at Martinsville.
After a career-best 15th-place finish in points in '02, things seemed to be looking up, but the last year was largely a struggle despite a win at Darlington. And after a miserable '04 campaign he struck a deal with Wells to let Bobby Hamilton Jr. take over the ride earlier this month at California -- though it was agreed Craven would make a final start in the Tide Chevrolet at NHIS.
But as Craven prepares for this last start with PPI Motorsports, not to mention his debut in the Craftsman Truck Series on Saturday afternoon, he's doing so with decidedly mixed emotions.
"The idea of racing the Tide car again is a bit difficult," Craven said Tuesday. "On one hand it is a great opportunity for me to say thanks and to end the association at a place that is important and special in front of a group of people that have been as loyal and supportive as any can be.
"On the flip side, I have circled the wagon on whether this makes sense or not on whether I should be doing this. Because certainly, change is difficult and maybe just making a clean break and letting Cal continue with his objectives would make more sense, and letting me focus on 2005. But I think at the end of the day, both Cal and myself would agree that we have done more good for each other than disappointment. You know, it doesn't always have to end ugly and this is a good opportunity for us to finish it at a place that has been special to me."
That's the nice thing about this breakup, on the surface it's been one of the cleanest in a sport where that's not often the case. The affection Wells and Craven have for one another has long been apparent and Craven and Wells each recorded their first two Cup victories as a team.
So even though things turned sour on the track, they didn't necessarily turn ugly off of it, something for which Craven's grateful.
"Understand that the first three years of racing with the Tide team were very, very good to me. I think we had  top 10, 10 top-fives and a couple of wins. It's just that it's a performance business, and we had a very disappointing first half of this year.
"Where we're at, I'm fine with it. But I do like the idea of finishing it the right way or at least having the opportunity to say thanks, and that's what my intention is. To go to New Hampshire and race a Craftsman Truck and have a lot of fun doing it and racing with a terrific group of drivers in a very legitimate series and then on Sunday, basically tipping my hat to the fans of New England and saying thanks for all the support -- in particular the three and a half years that I have raced with this team."
The question Craven will hear the most this weekend regards his 2005 plans. And it's going to be a question he won't be able to answer unless an offer he can't refuse presents itself between now and Friday. Nextel Cup's Silly Season hasn't really kicked into gear as of yet, so it's tough saying exactly what rides might be available.
And even if rides are available, it will be up to sponsors if they want a seasoned veteran or prefer rolling the dice with an untested youngster. Craven's been looking for his next ride since he was at New Hampshire in July, which is when he and Wells announced that Hamilton Jr. would be taking over next season.
At the time, the plan was to close out the year on a high note, but those plans lasted less than six weeks.
"There is a bottom line to this business like there is any business. We just came to the realization that although we gave it a shot to try and finish the year together that we would probably be better off if we went different directions. Again, I'm OK with that," Craven said.
Craven's stated goal at the time was to remain in Cup, though many are assuming his entry in the truck race could be a tryout of sorts. However, his participation in the event as the driver of a Morgan/Dollar Motorsports entry that heads up Chevrolet's testing program was announced back in March, long before his career took yet another unexpected turn.
"[The future] will come down to a couple of things. The bottom line to my wanting to be in the Nextel Cup Series next year is that first of all, I am worthy of that, and I think that there are several ways that I could qualify myself to be a Nextel Cup driver," Craven said. "The fact that we were only one of however many drivers and teams that won last year -- we were one of them. I know it was less than 20. I think that I have worked a long time to get to this point, and I still enjoy the sport and I still have a passion to compete and I just don't feel like the game is over. I feel like there are a few innings left to play.
"As an alternative to that -- the idea of racing Nextel Cup next year, the Busch Series or the Craftsman Truck Series are great alternatives. But I just don't know if that is something that I am interested in doing. I've never raced in [the Craftsman Truck Series], and from the outside looking in, it looks like it could be a lot of fun. What it comes down to is the opportunities that I have or don't have in the next few months.
"There's already been discussions with some teams. It's just that I really don't know what I want to do, and it is so unfair for me to speculate because I really need to know what I want to do as opposed to what is available or what I can do."
Craven's trips home are always busy as family, friends and fans all are looking for a bit of his time. He's used to it by now and says the Cup race itself will be the best part of the weekend.
"I think that the three and a half hours in the car on Sunday will be the easiest part of the job," Craven said. "It's always about trying to satisfy your responsibilities and obligations, and it is a little extra difficult for me when I go home. I have to combine that with time for my friends and family and sometimes that is difficult. In fact, it is usually difficult going home and finding the time. You know, I'm going to do it; and I'm going to give it everything that I have.
"I'd love nothing better than to have a strong performance on Sunday, and ultimately a win on Saturday and challenge for a win on Sunday. That would be a perfect ending for me with this Tide team. You know, Proctor & Gamble was and is an excellent company to represent and be associated with. The PPI team gave a tremendous effort. They were a great group to race with. My objective is just to go there and say thanks to everybody."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
3dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz