Rain pelted the track at Richmond two Fridays ago without a wisp of sunshine on the horizon. Former Winston Cup Rookie of the Year Ricky Craven gazed outside his trailer window, looking for his own break in the clouds. "I'm a realist," said Craven, who averaged one top 10 finish every 5.75 races in the first three years of his career, 1995 through '97, "and the reality is that I was closer to winning a race in 1997 than I am now."
In '97 he had two third-place finishes and two fifth-place showings. But last year he was sidelined for 12 races with post-concussion syndrome, the residual effect of a horrific crash during practice at Texas Motor Speedway in April '97. His coveted spot with NASCAR's elite Hendrick Motor-sports team, for whom Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte had claimed the last three Winston Cup titles, appeared tenuous. Craven, 32 at the time, wondered whether "the life I'd always dreamed of could be over."
A native of Newburgh, Maine, Craven made his return to racing last July at his de facto home track, New Hampshire International. The last of 44 drivers to attempt to qualify, he won the pole, snatching it from Gordon, who high-fived his teammate as Craven pulled his Chevy Monte Carlo onto pit row. This is the perfect script, Craven thought to himself.
Four races later, following finishes of 19th at New Hampshire, 41st at Pocono, 17th at the Brickyard 400 and 35th at the Bud at the Glen, Craven was dropped from the Hendrick team. After investing 17 years of his life in racing cars and being named rookie of the year on five circuits, Craven was unemployed. "If I've ever been depressed in my life," says Craven, who is married with two children, "it would have been in 1998."
Craven chose to stop driving in April '98, following a scary episode involving his equilibrium. "I was flying in a small plane, just me and the pilot, when we went through some clouds," says Craven. "After a few moments I was white-knuckling, asking, 'Why are we flying upside down?' We weren't, of course—I just had lost my equilibrium." Doctors diagnosed postconcussion syndrome after Craven scored 26% on an inner-ear balance exam. "There's a fine line between playing hurt and prolonging an injury," says Craven. "A guy like my idol, Carlton Fisk, might've said, 'Toughen up, kid.' But I did what I thought was best for me and for Hendrick Motorsports."
Craven, whose New England background already distanced him from many of his Southern-reared NASCAR peers, was something of a pariah when he returned to the track in July and raced so poorly. He wondered if he had lost his focus. Others did, too. "Ricky had always been such an energetic guy before the crashes," says a former associate producer for ESPN. "We did an interview with him when he returned, and in one spot, in the middle of a sentence, he paused for nine seconds. We were worried about him."
Last November Craven hooked up with neophyte owner Scott Barbour of Pittsburgh, who owns an aircraft engine supply company. In 11 races in Barbour's Ford Taurus this season, Craven on average has qualified 30th and finished 32nd, including a 19th at Richmond—the 20th consecutive race in which he failed to crack the top 10. "But I remember something [fellow driver] Jeff Burton told me after I split with Hendrick last season," Craven says. "He grabbed mc by both shoulders, looked me straight in the eyes and said, 'You know you haven't forgotten how to do this.' Deep down, I believe that he's right."