Ricky Craven and the No. 32 Tide Pontiac team finished 29th in Sunday's Ford 400 NASCAR Winston Cup event at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.

After working his way into the top-25 from a 42nd-place starting spot, a leaking left rear tire forced Craven to pit under the green flag around lap 136 of the 267-lap event. His Tide crew quickly replaced the problem tire, but pitting under the green flag put the PPI Motorsports (PPIM) team two laps down to the race leaders, effectively ending the team's chances at a strong finish.

"The bad luck just continued to follow us this weekend," Craven said. "The crew busted their behinds, and really gave their all to get this car in shape today. We had finally gotten it to where I could turn some strong lap times, and then we had a tire that was going down. It's unfortunate to see the guys' hard work go unrewarded. I think we were on our way to at least a top-15 finish, but that's just the way the second half of our season has gone."

The weekend began with the PPIM team having a difficult time finding a chassis setup that worked on the reconfigured 1.5-mile Homestead track. Throughout the three practice sessions that preceded Sunday's event, the Tide team tried a number of different combinations to improve the handling characteristics of its entry.

Starting the race from the 42nd position, Craven and the crew continued to work on the Tide Pontiac. In the opening laps of the event, the changes the team had made prior to the race resulted in a loose handling condition on the No.32 entry. Fortunately for the Tide team, an early caution flag for a wreck involving the cars of Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch allowed Craven to bring his car to pit road for chassis adjustments.

Returning to the track in 33rd position for the lap nine restart, Craven discovered the changes the team had made did not have the desired effect on the car's handling, and Craven dropped as far back as 40th position by lap 18.

The engine on Matt Kenseth's entry expired on lap 28, which allowed Craven to again come to pit road for adjustments under the yellow flag. Quick work by the PPIM pit crew pushed Craven up four spots to 34th for the lap 34 restart.

Over the next 36 laps, Craven stayed in and around the top-35, until a pass by race leader Bill Elliott put the No. 32 one lap down around lap 70. Just three laps later, a blown tire on Michael Waltrip's entry put the race back under the yellow flag. Per NASCAR's rules, as the first driver a lap down at the time, Craven was put back on the lead lap.

During the caution period, the Tide team again went to work on Craven's entry, making chassis adjustments and putting fresh tires on its Pontiac before sending Craven back out in 33rd position for the lap 78 restart. Only four laps of green flag racing had gone in the record books when the engine on Jeff Green's entry gave up the ghost, bringing out another caution flag on lap 82. Craven told his crew that the adjustments they had made were helping the handling of the Tide machine, and with a few more changes, the Tide ride would be able to mount a charge on the top-10.

After the lap 86 restart, Craven moved up to 29th position and remained there until an incident involving Brian Vickers brought out the next yellow flag on lap 122. Craven used the opportunity to duck onto pit road for fresh tires, fuel and more chassis adjustments, returning to the race in 23rd position for the lap 128 restart.

Just eight laps later, the Tide Pontiac visibly slowed on the racetrack, and spotter Nick Harvey quickly concluded that Craven's entry had a tire that was losing air. Craven confirmed Harvey's diagnosis, and brought his entry to the attention of the Tide crew. The pit crew quickly replaced all four tires, but the damage had been done. The green flag stop had dropped the No. 32 two laps down to the race leaders.

Craven and his team didn't give up the fight, and continued to adjust on their car for the remainder of the event. In spite of the team's efforts, the tire problem proved to be a costly one, and the Tide entry was credited with a 29th-place finish, three laps down to race leader Bobby Labonte.

With the finish, Craven ends the 2003 NWC season in 27th position in the drivers' points standings. While disappointed at how his day had ended , Craven remained upbeat about his team's prospects for the upcoming year.

"We got a win this year, which is an improvement over last season, so that's a definite positive," Craven said. "This team had a lot of new variables in place this year, with a new manufacturer and a new engine program, so I give the guys a lot of credit for the success we've had. I'm very excited about 2004, and the opportunities that the Chevy Monte Carlo will bring for myself and the entire PPI Motorsports organization. We've got a great group of people, and I think we'll surprise a lot of people next year. I'm looking forward to it."

With that, Craven and the PPIM team packed up the No. 32 Tide transporter and headed for North Carolina. The team will be back at work Monday morning, preparing for the first race of the 2004 season, the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in Florida.

 

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