Ricky Craven didn’t put a full-court press on Victory Lane during his Sprint Cup driving career. He won only twice over a span of 11 years, but in his life as a racing analyst for ESPN — a role he’s held since 2008 — he has emerged as one of sports television’s most respected commentators.
Calm, confident and reasoned in his comments, Craven has established himself as a whip-smart analyst in a sport that often defies easy analysis. He doesn’t use catchphrases or wild rants but instead attempts to tell listeners why events unfold and what to expect around the next turn.
A driver in the Sprint Cup Series in 1991 and from 1995-2004, Craven, now 47, scored wins at Martinsville and Darlington (in a famous, grinding finish with Kurt Busch) before exiting the driver’s seat for good after the 2006 Nationwide Series season.
Craven shared some of his perspective with Athlon Sports.
Athlon Sports: How do you see a race as an analyst versus how you experienced one as a driver? How is the perspective different?
Ricky Craven: From a driver’s perspective, you’re not as aware of the big picture and what is required to pull off an event and how one or two things during the race affect so many others. Most athletes are programmed to be selfish. It’s what you need to be to compete and succeed. Some things appear one way from the driver’s seat, and the same things I see today I say, ‘OK, wow, that looks different and has a completely different effect.’
Years ago, races ended under caution. A race ended at Talladega under caution, and fans showed their displeasure by throwing things over the fence. I was appalled by it, but I also felt something I’d never acknowledged before in all the years I had driven race cars. The race finishing under caution has a horrible effect on the paying customer. It’s like, ‘We paid to see the checkered flag fly at 200 miles per hour, not 80. That’s what we came for.’ From the seat I occupy today, it was a fabulous decision to go to the green-white-checker finish. As a driver then, I wouldn’t have seen it that way.
How has racing changed for the driver since you retired?
There’s more parity, and the margins between a good car and a bad car are very narrow. There’s more strategy now on pit road. Not that we didn’t have strategy, but there’s a much greater emphasis on preserving track position now — whatever is required to do that or to get that. It’s arguably the most competitive time in the history of the sport. The double-file restarts are a bonus. I think it’s the most important aspect of the race for the drivers now, because there’s an opportunity to capitalize on three or four spots that otherwise might take 60 laps to gain. You can get three or four spots in a lap on a restart. That’s changed the game.
Some racing insiders say the car is 60 or 70 percent of the quality equation and the driver is the rest. How do you see that dynamic?
It’s 50-50 for a good car and a good driver to finish top 10. I think it’s 70-30, driver, for those drivers that are perennial top-5 drivers. The reason I say that is it’s not that a driver can carry a car. These cars are just too sensitive, but their willingness to run right on the edge and have that talent to back it up, that’s what separates the winners and the top-10 drivers.
Drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch — they run extremely hard to finish off a win or a top-5 day. I think some drivers are guilty of depending too much on a good car. They would say, ‘I need the car that Jimmie has.’ I think those drivers will continue to finish eighth to 15th because very, very, very seldom are they going to have that car. Frankly, Jimmie doesn’t have that car week in and week out. When he does, he capitalizes on it with a maximum-point day. But what about the days when he wins because he just laid it on the line? We see that out of some drivers — Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick — but Jimmie Johnson makes a living out of it. Jimmie Johnson doesn’t win a lot of races on fuel mileage or pit-road strategy. He just outruns you. Those drivers who can contribute 70 percent are in the minority — a select, very special group.
Do you think the relative importance of the driver has changed with the Gen-6 car?
I don’t think so. I think the driver has always been the determining factor. In other words, you could have 20 good drivers and we might have seasons where we have 15 or 16 winners, but the drivers who win year in and year out — they could switch teams and win. Matt Kenseth is a great example of that. Late in life, he moves from the only organization he’s been with (from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing) and has arguably the best year of his career statistically. You look at Clint Bowyer, who is a very good race car driver. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet. I watch the in-car camera, and he lives on that edge. There has to be a willingness to do that, where other drivers just aren’t that comfortable on the edge. When Clint transitioned from Richard Childress Racing to Michael Waltrip, in some people’s minds, Waltrip’s program wasn’t ready for Clint. And that obviously wasn’t correct. They’ve capitalized and run extremely well. The old saying is that the cream rises to the top. If the driver is given enough time with the car, he’ll medal.
Do you think the sport has to have compelling competition pretty much every week to thrive, or can it roll along sort of on the back of the drivers’ personalities and the color and the noise?
I think the latter is more important. If we think back to some of the key figures in our sport, there are drivers who had dominant seasons — Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon. There have been some other excellent drivers who won a few races in a year and maybe won a championship, but they didn’t carry the same flavor as the elite that put up big numbers and were the drivers to beat and had a bull’s-eye on them.
Eventually, somebody is going to step up and challenge the status quo. Ernie Irvan is a good example. When I was racing, he came along and became a formidable challenger to people. All of a sudden, he was a guy who was willing to ruffle some feathers and move people out of the way. Somebody labeled him ‘Swervin’ Irvan.’ If he hadn’t gotten hurt, I think he would have continued to put up some big numbers and would have been challenging for a championship. He still had a good career. But it takes that kind of personality, like a Kevin Harvick has or even a Kyle Busch has.
As it relates to Jimmie Johnson, the reason we haven’t seen that great rivalry, that heated rivalry, between him and someone else is that he typically doesn’t win at someone else’s expense. He’s not that guy who roughs up the other drivers, but he wins like the elite drivers did. But he goes about it differently.
Can you put what Johnson has done in the last decade into historical perspective?
Very difficult. I emptied the tank to win two races in Cup. I remember winning Rookie of the Year in 1995 and thinking that I would have double-digit wins in my career. It didn’t work out. There was a period when I didn’t think I was going to win a Cup race, but I can tell you I emptied the tank trying to.
Then I see Jimmie win, and he makes it look easy. And I know it’s not easy. At this point in his life, a lot of drivers’ skills diminish. Their focus diminishes because they’ve acquired so many things and they have so much distraction, and that all comes at a price. I haven’t seen an ounce of that from Jimmie Johnson. I see him prepare like an extremely talented athlete who’s scared to death that he’ll underachieve or never win a title. He doesn’t operate like he’s satisfied. He operates like there’s an urgency. He works harder than most. He has a greater focus than most. He has less distraction than most. Those are some of the ingredients that make him so difficult to beat.
He also has this tremendous ability to preserve relationships. It’s so well documented that some of the best in our sport eventually have the feeling that ‘I’m not getting the credit I deserve’ or something along those lines, and there was a separation. They still won races, but they didn’t continue on that pace that they had with that magical combination. We all marvel at what they’ve done. Chad (Knaus) and Jimmie have preserved that, and that’s at the very core of their success.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to run with the top group, but the wins have been few and far between. And he’s still looking for that first championship. What’s missing?
What’s missing the last few years was attitude. I go back to my introduction to Dale Jr. It was toward the end of my career. There has never been a question in my mind that he has the skills to be a champion in Sprint Cup. And I’ve never deviated from that. But he’s been on a hell of a ride as far as being tested and the ups and downs. I would say most people would be mentally exhausted. Dale Jr. lost his dad in this sport. I don’t how he got through that. When you put all that in a bowl and stir it up, it’s an awful lot.
But what I see right now — in the past few months, maybe he finally turned the corner. Maybe he’s finally sleeping better. Maybe he’s finally relaxed. Maybe he’s finally got that edge. But I see it in his eyes. I hear it in his voice. I see it in his interviews. There’s no question there was a difference in him in the second half of 2013. He’s got that fire. All the hard work from Steve Letarte has helped put good cars under him and rebuilt that confidence.
If Dale preserves that attitude through the offseason, he’s going to have a very good 2014. It’s going to be his best at Hendrick Motorsports. It might be his last push, but it’s going to be a good one.
Talk about Tony Stewart. What are you looking for from him this year considering what he went through in 2013?
He’s very resilient. He’s as mentally tough as anybody I’ve met, but he has a hurdle to clear in that any time you’re out of the race car, particularly later in life, you have some catching up to do. And there are some timing issues. When you jump back on the horse, it comes back to you, but it doesn’t mean that your motor skills and all the things that you perfect are going to be there in February and March.
And this is something that gets lost, but the cars are constantly changing. The cars are constantly being adjusted and changed in an effort to gain speed. You hear teams talk all the time about what they ran at a track in the spring doesn’t work in the fall. So Tony lost that whole last part of the season where the cars continued to evolve. He has some catching up to do, and, frankly, it won’t be easy.
He’s been quiet, almost stealth-like, but I’m hearing he’s working hard. I expect him to come out of the gate like a bear, but he will have some catching up to do.
What about his team? There’s quite a volatile collection of drivers there with Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch coming on board. What do you expect from them?
I expect Harvick and Busch will make the Chase. They’re just that good, and they’ll be in good equipment. I’m hedging a little bit, and that is based on one thing and one thing only, but it weighs heavily with me: Mark Martin didn’t run well in that 14 car (as a substitute for the injured Stewart).
Mark Martin is as good as anybody I’ve raced against. I know he’s an anomaly in that he’s doing this at such a late age. But he didn’t run Mark Martin-like in that car. That concerns me a little.
At the end of 2013, there wasn’t a really good measure. Danica (Patrick) was still going through the learning curve. Ryan (Newman), even though he made the Chase, he didn’t run that well in the last 10 events. And Mark was put in a situation where he had to get acclimated to the team, and it just didn’t seem to synchronize. That has me scratching my head a little.
There’s talk in the garage that NASCAR is looking to make some significant changes to the 2015 Sprint Cup schedule with the arrival of the new television contract. What do you think? Should the schedule be worked on extensively? Are other changes needed?
I think we’re in pretty good shape. I think we could use one less mile-and-half track in the Chase. Seems like we’re a little out of balance there. I’m not for or against the idea of a road course in the Chase. That’s not that important to me. I’d love to have another short track in the Chase. To me, short-track racing is one of the pillars of our sport.
I think the one big challenge for our sport is that I think we would benefit from taking 30 to 40 percent of the seats out of the grandstands. This has gone on long enough. We had a tremendous build-out when the economy was firing on all cylinders and there was an abundance of extra cash for people to travel and be entertained. The sport is healthier than it appears when you view the grandstands.
I feel good about our sport. I feel that we’re making progress, but we’re going to be perceived as underachieving as long as the grandstands are half-full or half-empty, depending on an individual’s perspective.