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February 27, 2001
Victory lap was Park's toughest
By SCOTT FOWLER, The Charlotte Observer

ROCKINGHAM -- It was one of the most unorthodox, erratic and absolutely gorgeous victory laps in racing history.

Steve Park almost wobbled to a wreck halfway through it. He cried all the way through it. He ran out of gas.

It was perfect.

Everyone involved with NASCAR got permission to feel good again Monday, on a sun-drenched day at North Carolina Speedway that eventually rose to the level of fine drama.

Park, driving a Dale Earnhardt Inc. car, edged Bobby Labonte at the Dura-Lube400 by about a car-length and then began a touching celebration.

Park first spun a donut just past the start-finish line and reversed field. He had stowed a black No.3 hat by his gearshift in honor of Earnhardt - the legendary driver who had died eight days before in a last-lap crash at the Daytona500.

Steve Park hold up the Dale Earnhardt flag following his victory

Park first spun a donut just past the start-finish line and reversed field. He had stowed a black No.3 hat by his gearshift in honor of Earnhardt - the legendary driver who had died eight days before in a last-lap crash at the Daytona500.

Now Park pulled out the No.3 cap, brandishing it at the fans who were just a few feet away, standing and yelling. The fans waved back, with Earnhardt pennants or Earnhardt caps or whatever they had.

"People were ripping Earnhardt shirts off their bodies to wave them at me," Park said.

Labonte - who had driven graciously and courageously, too - drove by. He gave Park a thumbs-up, then wiggled his own Earnhardt "Intimidator" cap at Park.

Already blinking back tears, Park started crying in earnest.

The next driver swinging toward Park was DEI teammate Michael Waltrip - the Daytona500 winner.

"I almost ran into him because I was crying so hard," Park said.

Park managed to guide his car so he and Waltrip were side by side going in opposite directions. Each man reached out a gloved left hand so they could connect on a high-five.

Park kept going, all the way to the backstretch. It was there he ran out of gas.

Lucky for him, after that thrilling win there was no shortage of available rides to Victory Lane.

Once he got there, Park acted like a rock star for a moment, jumping off the hood of his car and straight into his crew members' arms as if he were diving headfirst into a mosh pit.

Then he took a congratulatory phone call from Teresa Earnhardt, Dale's widow, who was back in Mooresville watching the race and running the DEI shop.

She was happy, Park said.

Park was in tears. Again.

Monday was a sorely needed moment for a sport that has absorbed countless blows in the past eight days. Park, with his emotionally charged performance, made everyone smile for awhile.

Park said he did it the way Earnhardt had taught him, which was to "stand up on that seat and drive the hell out of that race car."

As a driver, Dale Earnhardt never won the first two races of the Winston Cup season. Now, posthumously, he has done that as an owner.

"He was there today," Park said of Earnhardt. "We all just couldn't see him. But he was there."

Such spiritual pronouncements have been common since Feb.18, when Earnhardt died after hitting the wall nearly head-on at Daytona. The difference Monday was the people who said those things seemed to be healing a little.

It wasn't a normal race day, of course. An emotional cauldron still brews in NASCAR, full of safety concerns and questions about how to replace the sport's Michael Jordan and a terrible sadness for Earnhardt and his family.

Yet the mood felt lighter Monday.

The fans wore T-shirts, soaked up the sun and played hooky for a Monday-morning race that had started and then been delayed by the gloomy weather a day before.

Jeff Gordon, who led the most laps and had a shot to win, was in high spirits after the race, teasing reporters and Labonte.

There were no serious wrecks - nothing like the first-lap crash that knocked Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the race Sunday.

And then there was a winner closely connected to Earnhardt - something nearly everyone at the track appreciated.

"It was appropriate and exactly what everybody needed," said Ricky Craven, who finished fifth.

"It's pretty awesome to see a DEI car winning despite all that they've been through," Gordon said.

"A tough week," Park said. "And a dream finish."

 

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Blk3GM's Dale Earnhardt Site was born on July 26, 1998 and is owned and maintained by Gary Harris.  This site is a tribute to "NASCAR's Greatest Driver" and his up and coming son.  We are not affiliated with any official Team, Sponsors, Media Group or NASCAR.  This site is solely for entertainment purposes.  Information and statistic's on this site have been collected from various NASCAR related sites on the internet, from Winston Cup Scene, Newspapers, Television and our personal experience at Winston Cup and Busch Grand National races.  All statistics are believed to be accurate at the time they are updated but cannot be guaranteed.
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