BROOKLYN, Mich. - Ricky Craven won the pole for the Pepsi 400 Friday, clocking a lap of 188.127 mph on the final qualifying attempt of the day.
Yesterday, Craven scored his best Winston Cup finish ever, taking second in the rain-shortened event at Michigan International Speedway.
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Sterling Marlin beat Craven back to the finish line on lap 156, when the caution flag flew for rain, and the cars ran six more laps under yellow before NASCAR officials called the race.
“I am very happy with my performance today,'' Craven said.
“I was chasing Sterling down and would have loved to have had 10 more laps to duke it out with him. I could smell victory. I could see it. I just ran out of time.''
“I kept looking in the mirror and I saw Craven was coming,'' Marlin said.
“I'm glad it started raining again. I'm glad it was called. I might not have been able to hold Ricky off. He was closing pretty fast.''
Craven, who had finished third four times previously in his seven-year Winston Cup career, now has three top-10 finishes in the past four races. He has five top-10 finishes this year.
“It's been a great month,'' he said. “It was a treat for us to come here and win the pole, then back it up by running in the top-5 all day. I'm just glad we were able to do that. It was a lot of fun.
“I really believe we're going to win a race soon.''
Following Craven across the finish line were crowd favorite Bill Elliott (third), Matt Kenseth (fourth) and Johnny Benson (fifth).
After Ricky Rudd's blown engine brought out the second caution on lap 121, all the leaders headed for the pits, except Jeremy Mayfield.
Elliott changed two tires and came out behind Mayfield, as did Craven.
Race leader Rusty Wallace chose to take four, putting him back in ninth on lap 127.
“Crew chief Mike Beam made a great decision to take two tires because I think Rusty had gotten away from us,'' Craven said. “He obviously took four tires, and as a result, paid the price.
“Mike made a great call.
“With the two tires, I wasn't as good as the Dodge's on the early run - they really put in on me. But then after they slowed down and I slowed down, I moved back up to the high groove, which really worked well for me today.''
Elliott passed Mayfield for the lead on lap 129 and pulled out to a two-second advantage.
Marlin steadily worked his way through the field and took the lead for good on lap 147.
Craven caught Elliott four laps later, and he was gaining on Marlin when the rain hit for the third time.
“I felt like the 28 car (Ricky Rudd) would be the car to beat, but he had problems,'' Craven said.
“When I saw that, I said, `Now it's all up for grabs.' I think I was at my best late in the run and it was showing. Toward the end, I was catching Sterling ... then it started raining again.
“There's no sense complaining. We've just got to take the 170 points and the second place and really feel good about it. We need to charge into next week and try to build on it. We had good pit stops, a good car and a good engine today.''
Craven, named Winston Cup rookie of the year in 1995, is slowly rebuilding his career after being released by Hendrick Motorsports in 1988.
He was without a full-time ride the past two seasons and joined owner Cal Wells late in the off-season.
Craven entered yesterday's race in 29th place in the point standings, but moved up to 23rd after capturing $92,545 for his runner-up finish at MIS.
“I think this is a great race track - it's a model race track,'' he said. “It requires all aspects of driving - you've got to have the handling and you could see that there were several options today, where you could run low, in the middle or on top.
“And you've clearly got to have the horsepower and the draft behind you.''
Craven said the wet conditions made it difficult on most cars and drivers at the end.
“When it began raining, it was a really tough situation because pit road had opened, so the guys on the lead lap behind us snuck in,'' he said.
“Sterling and I were in a world of hurt at that point.
“If it had stopped raining, we were obviously going to pit - and then you don't know what could happen.''