Craven and Co. must rely on themselves

A fire at the Ricky Craven Motorsports North store last fall destroyed just about everything. Trophies, awards, pictures, mementos, merchandise -- everything.

And while the folks back at the shop stay on the horn around the clock, calling different race tracks and companies about replacing the lost items, Ricky Craven is in Daytona working hard to find some replacement trophies, too.

But it's a tall task for the driver of the No. 32 Chevrolet. Sure, he's got a couple of victories in his last three seasons and, at times, looked stronger than he ever has in his roller coaster career. But it's hard for anyone to go it alone in this sport. And without a companion car in the stable, Craven's working off the notes he, team manager Mike Beam and crew chief Dave Charpentier can come up with. Nothing from any other team's perspective.

"There clearly are favorites and underdogs," Craven said. "If we build a role of underdog, I'm OK with that. I don't think that it comes with any stigma of not being legitimate or capable of winning races. I think we've proven otherwise. But the fact is I'm 37 years old. I'd like for this race team and company to grow and mature to the point that it's a bigger corporation where I have a teammate and somebody that I can share time with and benefit from."

The superspeedways in particular are a nice place to have a teammate. Sure, it's true that when it comes to the end of the race it's every man for himself. Even during the race, teammates will choose not to work with each other if they adopt different strategies or if their cars aren't working well together. But none of that is why Craven craves a teammate. He wants notes to share.

Craven first got to Daytona for testing in January and ran a practice lap that was toward the bottom of the speed charts at 17th. The crew worked feverishly, and before the three-day session was over, he posted the sixth-fastest lap and two other top-10 speeds. It was a serious showing, but he came back to Daytona behind the ball. Another group went down to testing, learned more than the first group -- partially thanks to their teammates notes from the first group -- and shared the gains with their teammates.

Craven came back to Daytona in February and ran some slow practice times before qualifying. Craven and Co. are back posting some solid speeds -- in fact, he had the seventh fastest lap in the Happy Hour practice on Saturday. Still, Craven knows it would be easier with a teammate.

"But that's down the road," he said. "That didn't happen last year. The expectations were pretty high. After winning Darlington there was a lot of interest in Cal Wells and the Tide team. As the season wore on, it just never materialized. So we're a single car team."

Craven isn't the type to give up when things don't go the way he wants. This is a guy who struggled through injury-plagued and post-concussion-hindered seasons after being dubbed Rookie of the Year upon his arrival. He's seen the lows of this sport, and running for a well-funded race team with a sponsor signed on for the entire season isn't one of the lows; teammate or no teammate.

"It is an exciting time for the Tide team and I feel really good about the upcoming 2004 season," Craven said. "Mike Beam's return is sort of like seeing a brother come home after a tour of duty oversees and his return has been a big boost to us all. Dave Charpentier has done an outstanding job and brought some new ideas and enthusiasm back to the team.

"I feel fortunate to work with this group of people because I enjoy them. They are fun to race with and I think all that helps team morale. Anytime you are on the road as much as we are, it helps to enjoy the people you are around."

Running for a single-car team isn't the only thing that sets Craven apart from the rest of the competition, which is full of three-, four- and five-car stables. Craven is unique in the fact that he's been able to keep the majority of his crew for what will be their fourth year together this season. That's an amazing accomplishment in this age of pit-crew swapping, and it's showing in Craven's pit stop times.

"I'm fortunate that I've worked with the same group of people for three years and that longevity is very valuable," he said. "It's very difficult to get and even more difficult to keep because when your team makes progress, and they rise to that level of performance, they become prospects to other teams. I'm thankful we've been able to retain the majority of the people and I think that's part of the big payoff for PPI Motorsports and the Tide team."

Charpentier said the team back at the shop is just as close as the team at the track, and that's been a big boost through January and February heading into Sunday's 500.

"I was encouraged and happy with the test at Daytona," he said. "... We didn't have everything on the race car (for testing), so I feel we will fare better than the test results showed."

Craven was to start 28th in the 500 -- though an engine switch will move him to the back of the field for the start of Sunday's race -- and he's not overly excited about his fast Happy Hour lap. Nor is he too down about going this route alone. At this point, all the sharing is done and teammates -- more this year with the softer tires than ever before -- might not be all that valuable, after all.

"I still believe that if you position yourself as a fast car and a contender for the win, you'll get plenty of help," he said. "As the race unfolds, and it gets down to the last few laps, you are on your own regardless of who your teammate is or isn't -- who your friend is or isn't -- and that's the way it should be."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.