MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) -- Three laps from the end of the Old Dominion 500, Ricky Craven looked in his rearview mirror and saw the realization of his dream. Emotion made it hard to concentrate.
Two laps from the end, he lowered his visor, essentially cutting off all communication with his team. Fact is, he couldn't talk anyway.
And one lap from the end, even with Dale Jarrett pulling door-to-door with Craven on the outside, and even with 173 examples of failure in his career, Craven knew his odyssey was over. Victory had finally come.
"We just won a Winston Cup race," he said an hour later at Martinsville Speedway, pausing and trying to let it sink in. "This is what I've worked for all my life."
Craven withstood everything Jarrett had to offer in the final lap Monday, seeing him pull almost even on the backstretch, refusing to yield his inside line and then slamming the door on his way to the triumph.
He beat Jarrett by .141 seconds, his first victory in 174 career Winston Cup starts, and then placed a most important phone call.
"I called my little girl at school and told her I won," he beamed.
She, like many others, was thrilled for the one-time promising driver who resigned from Hendrick Motorsports in 1998 after eight races sandwiched around a bout with postconcussion syndrome, and who knew the whispers in the garage area had become that his career might be finished.
"I'm not ashamed to tell you that I ran the last two laps with my visor down because I couldn't talk," he said. "If you want to speak in terms of extremes, there was a percentage of time spent feeling sorry for myself, and then you look at this side and it's like I'm on top of the world. I mean, this is the greatest day of my life professionally."
Other drivers, Jarrett included, celebrated with Craven.
"Ricky Craven is a great guy and it's nice to have him as a Winston Cup winner now," said Jarrett, who bolted from his car to be one of the first to congratulate Craven, a popular guy among the other drivers.
"Ricky Craven has been through a lot and it just shows the perseverance and what he has down inside of him to gut it out," he said.
In a race postponed a day because of rain, Craven pulled away from Jarrett on a restart with 17 laps to go, but saw Jarrett close in, pulling up close to his bumper with about two laps to go on the .526-mile oval.
In the end, that it was Jarrett was a comfort to the winner.
"He's a gentleman and he did everything he could to win, but he didn't rough me up," Craven said. "I knew he wouldn't rough me up."
Craven's victory also gave car owner Cal Wells his first victory in NASCAR's premier series, and proved a bonanza for points leader Jeff Gordon, who cruised home in ninth place and added 97 points to his lead over Ricky Rudd. Gordon leads by 334 points with six races remaining.
Gordon, the marquee driver for Hendrick and Craven's teammate until 1998, was thrilled for his former teammate.
"I think everybody is really happy for him," Gordon said.
Bobby Hamilton, who won on this track in the spring of 1998 while driving for Richard Petty, seemed to have the car to beat until he and rookie Kevin Harvick got caught up in a bumping battle neither won.
Hamilton caught Harvick with 28 laps left and bumped him in the second turn to take the lead. But Harvick got him back in turns three and four, spinning him out and allowing Craven to slide underneath for the lead.
Ward Burton finished third in a Dodge, followed by defending series champion Bobby Labonte's Pontiac and Jeff Burton, also in a Ford. The rest of the top 10 included Benson in a Pontiac, Mark Martin in a Ford, Mike Wallace in a Ford, Gordon in a Chevrolet and Sterling Marlin in a Dodge.
Marlin moved into third place in the points race, but Gordon needs only to finish 11th or better in the last six races to clinch his fourth series title. Only Petty and Dale Earnhardt, each with seven, have more.
The race was typical of Martinsville, with drivers fighting for position and getting knocked around. The yellow flag flew 13 times.
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