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Craven says all things point to great year
DAYTONA, Fla. (AP) -- Ricky Craven was NASCAR's Rookie of the Year in 1995 and finished third behind teammates Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte in the Daytona 500 two years later. But the best is yet to come, he said.
"I'm 34 and I have a lot of racing left. My best races are ahead of me. The next six years should be the best of my career," said Craven.
Craven signed in December to become driver of the Tide No. 32 Ford for Precision Preparation Inc. Motorsports, marking his return to racing with a strong team for the first time since getting dropped by Hendricks Motorsports in 1998 following major accidents at Talladega and Texas Motor Speedway.
With the backing of PPI Motorsports, the Newburgh, Maine, native who lived in Concord, N.H., has good facilities and a budget that allows the team to test as frequently as necessary and to send the cars for wind tunnel testing.
Craven had the 10th-fastest time in Saturday's time trials. That placed him fifth out of 26 cars in the second of Thursday's twin 125-mile qualifying races.
If drivers don't finish 15th or better in the Twins and don't have a fast time from time trials, they go home early, as Craven did last year. But this year, it's virtually assured that Craven will be on the starting grid this weekend.
Craven feels his team is capable of finishing in the top 20 in points.
"I'm not an eternal optimist and I'm not a pessimist," he said. "I'm a realist and this is something to be excited about."
Mike Beam, a North Carolinian, is the new crew chief and Craven is his 13th driver in 20 seasons. Both Beam and Craven are aware that they come with question marks attached to their resumes.
They see salvation in each other.
"We've talked about that," said Craven. "He doesn't want to accept losing and I know I don't."
For his part, team owner Cal Wells is optimistic. After failing to achieve his goals last year, Wells' hopes for this season are to qualify for every race and earn some respect on the track.
"We still have a ways to go, but we're so far ahead of where we were at this time last year. I would grade us an eight out of 10 right now. Everybody has worked very, very hard," he said.