Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: Revisiting a Wild Darlington Finish … No, Not THAT One

2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the iconic 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 that etched its way into NASCAR history.

Don’t remember that race? Here’s a quick rundown.

On March 16, 2003, Kurt Busch was leading in the closing laps when his power steering failed. That allowed Ricky Craven to close and swap the lead with Busch several times in the last five laps in a great battle for the lead. Off of turn 4 on the final lap, they door-slammed all the way to the line, where Craven edged Busch by 0.002 seconds — which is still tied for the closest finish in NASCAR history.

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It was an upset win for both Craven and his team, PPI Motorsports — the win was just the second (and final) career win for both parties. They shared their first win together at Martinsville Speedway in 2001.

That Darlington finish has widely been talked about ever since — as it should be. However, that weekend’s NASCAR Busch Series (now Xfinity Series) race had an equally awesome finale but gets overshadowed by the Cup finish. Part of that reason is how historic the finish was, not to mention the aforementioned upset from Craven and crew. But it’s also because the Cup race actually ran first that weekend, leaving the entire Busch race forgotten about, let alone the finish.

That Darlington Busch race was scheduled to run on Saturday, March 15, but weather forced NASCAR to push the race to Monday, March 17, after the Sunday Cup race. Stanton Barrett started from the pole due to the weather, but the story became about Todd Bodine, who led a total of 71 laps on the day in an unsponsored No. 92, and Jamie McMurray, who was running a part-time schedule in Phoenix Racing’s No. 1 and cared more about wins than points.

The race went green for the last 80 laps. After one last cycle of pit stops under green, Stacy Compton tried to pull off an upset by staying out until the finish instead. Bodine and McMurray both ran down Compton and took him three-wide with three laps to go to take over first and second.

Bodine was able to hold McMurray off until turn 4 on the final lap. After it looked like McMurray had no chance to pass “The Onion”, he somehow found grip on the outside of Bodine coming off of turn 4 — it looked like McMurray got shot out of a cannon in the middle of turn 3.

McMurray and Bodine were side-by-side off of turn 4, reminiscent of just 24 hours prior. They even made contact with each other just like the day before.

Except, unlike Sunday, they crashed.

When McMurray got to Bodine’s outside, Bodine got loose, overcorrected and shot into the outside wall, catching McMurray’s left rear and sending the No. 1 spinning down into the inside wall. Bodine managed to keep enough momentum to pass the spinning McMurray about 200 feet before the line and win the race, with McMurray sliding across the line to finish second.

Both cars took a lot of damage, just like Busch and Craven, but fortunately, both drivers were able to finish first and second. It would be a shame to have a great race like that end with one or both drivers finishing outside the top 10.

Much like Craven, the win was the last for Bodine in his Busch Series career. However, he went on to have a successful career in the Craftsman Truck Series after. Bodine was in the midst of a championship hunt in 2003, but his team, Herzog-Jackson Motorsports, ran out of funding midway into the season.

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Bodine was released and the team shut down at season’s end. Maybe if history hadn’t happened the day before, or if the race ran on Saturday as scheduled, more eyes would have been on the Busch race. If so, Bodine’s win could’ve potentially propelled sponsorship; unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

As for McMurray, he finally got his Darlington Busch win in the fall of the following year, scoring Rusty Wallace Racing’s only win. And he of course had a very respectable career in the Cup Series, including winning the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the NASCAR All-Star Race.

Two of the greatest finishes in NASCAR history took place on the same weekend — and one of them even happened on a Monday. But that Monday race will forever be overshadowed by a historic race that continues to be talked about to this day.

About the author

Frontstretch.com

Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. Currently, he is an editor and co-authors Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the primary Truck Series reporter/writer. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is now a grad student. He is a theatre actor and fight-choreographer-in-training in his free time. 

You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.

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