Ricky Craven returns to Daytona International Speedway and the 2004 season as a ten-year veteran of NASCAR's premier series, now known as the Nextel Cup.

Although the Tide team has remained almost completely intact during the off-season, there have been some changes, with Mike Beam, a former crew chief for Craven, returning to PPI Motorsports in the new role of competition director. Owner Cal Wells and Beam then hired Dave Charpentier, former technical director for Dale Earnhardt Inc as crew chief for the #32 Tide Racing team.

"It is an exciting time for the Tide team and I feel really good about the upcoming season," Craven commented, "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."

The team also changed manufacturers over the off-season, switching from Pontiacs to Chevrolets. The changes may seem significant to the outsider, but the team is excited about the significance it can make in a positive direction for the 2004 season.

"I know we are very excited about the new Monte Carlo and I think it is a great race car," Craven said, "With that said, there has been some transition, and the guys have had to work over time to change the cars from Pontiac to Chevrolet, but it is all about getting to victory lane. I think when we leave Daytona, we'll have a clear understanding of how well we've adjusted to the new car.

"I do know this though - during the course of the season, I believe the Monte Carlo is going to pay dividends for us and I'm looking forward to the new season. I believe it is going to be our best ever."

The 2004 Daytona 500 will mark Craven's 253rd career senior series start, his 17th start at Daytona and his ninth in the 500. His best finish in the race was third in 1997.

"The 1-2-3 finish on my debut for Hendrick Motorsports in 1997 was sweet," he recalled, "I would love to run that race over again because the three of us had a heck of a run, but this time I would have liked the order to be reversed. You get one chance a year to win the Daytona 500 and there isn't a race that I would rather win than that one. Finishing third that year was great, but knowing you've come that close isn't as satisfying for me as people might think. You want to win it.

"It would be hard to put that victory perspective because I think the Daytona 500 is the equivalent of any major event in sports. Whether you are a golfer and it's the Masters, or the Indy 500 or Wimbledon, there are certain events that go on each year that separate themselves from all others, and the Daytona 500 is the ultimate and the most prestigious race on the NASCAR schedule.

"I'm very focused on the Daytona 500. It is not a one-race season but, for this brief moment, that's really all that matters - just the Daytona 500. It is a race that every driver desperately wants to win and it's the biggest race of the year. When it is over, our team will obviously focus on the next event, but this race gets more attention than any on the schedule because it is the Daytona 500."

The Tide pit crew was among the best in the business during the 2003 season, consistently performing quick stops for Craven, and he is hoping to receive more of the same in 2004 as the same crew returns almost intact.

"I'm fortunate that I've worked with the same group of people for three years, and that longevity is very valuable," the driver 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."



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