On the verge / Strong second half has Park thinking of victory
September 28, 1999 - BY REA McLEROY -Times-Dispatch Staff Writer
Dale Earnhardt was ready for the challenge.
He’d already had a great day, climbing from his 37th-starting spot to eighth in the MBNA 400 at Dover Downs International Speedway on Sunday. When he saw Steve Park on his bumper, Earnhardt’s day merely brightened a little more.
Park has been one of the season’s question marks. Often rumored to be on his way out of a job, the young driver maintained he just needed a little time. His team owner -- Earnhardt -- gave it to him.
Now, 49 races into his career, Park is showing promise. In the past 10 races he has climbed 10 spots in the Winston Cup points. He has seven top-15 finishes, including a ninth-place run Sunday afternoon.
His owner was pleased with Park’s performance, but Earnhardt was a little disappointed he didn’t get more of a personal challenge on the track.
“He finished right behind me, and I thought we might be racing for a position down the stretch, but it didn’t turn out that way this time,” Earnhardt said.
Park believes there will be more chances. In fact, his efforts were hindered Sunday by having to change a battery when his car started having ignition-system problems. Without the setback, he thinks he could have caught his owner, maybe even run in the top five.
For a driver who has faced struggles, finishing that well on a problematic day was a victory in itself.
“To have a bad day and come out ninth shows a team that’s capable of running in the top 10 and winning races,” Park said. “To have a bad set of tires and a dead battery and then rally to finish in the top 10 is a credit to this whole
Team is a word bandied around a lot by this group. Since the addition of crew chief Paul Andrews in late May, Park and company have steadily increased their performance. Of course, Park’s increased experience is also playing a huge role in the rise.
Last season, the rookie driver missed 15 races after breaking his collarbone and arm in a crash during the first Atlanta race. Technically, he entered this season as a second-year driver, but the missed races put Park behind the field. With only 22 starts under his belt, he still needed experience.
Now, as he returns to tracks he has seen and continues to develop, the driver is silencing the critics. It’s been a couple of months since it was reported that Park was being fired or replaced or changing teams.
“I’ve paid my dues in Winston Cup and taken my lumps,” he said. “The team is starting to really come around to the point where we can be competitive week in and week out.”
Still, it hasn’t been easy. Park is used to winning. He was the Featherlite Modified tour’s pole champion, official most popular driver and overall runner-up in 1995. In 1996, he again finished second in the points race. A year later he won the Busch Grand National Series Rookie of the Year award while driving in five Winston Cup races.
Park expects more from himself than just to finish races.
“Up until now, it’s been an utter disappointment in Cup,” he admitted. “It’s been hard to keep your head up and stay focused. I’ve been used to winning in every other series I’ve been in, and then here you can’t even see the light at the end of the tunnel as far as when you’re going to win a race.”
It’s getting better.
Park isn’t the only one expecting him to win. Perhaps that’s been the hardest part. Not only did Park have to contend with his own feelings about not winning or not performing up to his standards, he had to face questions from his friends as well. At least he could understand that the transition to NASCAR’s premier series would take a little time.
“My friends are so used to seeing me win from go-karts right on up to the Busch Series,” Park said. “They keep asking me what’s wrong. Why I’m not winning now. I wish I could give them a week’s trip with me from Monday through the race on Sunday and then they could see what it takes. They’d go home and say, ‘I don’t know how you do this 34 times a year.’ ”
He does it because he loves it. And because he’s good at it. And because he has seen two other drivers -- Joe Nemechek and Tony Stewart -- break into the winner’s circle for the first time this season. It has reaffirmed his faith.
“I think we’ll be one of the next teams to win that hasn’t won yet,” Park said. “I’ve grown accustomed to victory lane in every other series. The joy it brings you and your team is something you live for. I think everybody in this series has been a winner numerous times in other series. I think it’s just a matter of time before we get back to victory lane.”
Born: Islip, N.Y.
Resides: Cornelius, N.C.
Career highlights: 1995 -- finished second in Featherlite Modified Tour standings, won most series poles; 1996 -- finished second in Featherlite Modified Tour standings; 1997 -- NASCAR Busch Grand National Series Rookie of the Year
Season statistics: 20th in Winston Cup points standings with four top-10 finishes and $1,290,398 in winnings
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