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Friday, June 22
Park perseveres through tragedy
By Jerry Bonkowski
ESPN.com

"Hi. Do you know me? I'm currently in eighth-place in the Winston Cup standings. I've won one race this season, had four other top-5 finishes in the season's first 15 races. I'm one of the most consistent racers on the tour this year, even though not too many people expected me to be this high in the standings. Still, not many people know who I am. That's why I carry the American Express card ..."

Steve Park may not need to make an American Express commercial to get recognition -- his driving is doing that for him this season -- but there's no question Park has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the first half of the season.

Steve Park
Steve Park dedicated his win at Rockingham to Dale Earnhardt.

"We call our team the underdog because nobody ever picks us to win, and nobody ever picks us to run good," said Park, driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet, one of three teams owned by Dale Earnhardt Inc. "Then, all of a sudden we do, and it seems to be a surprise to others week after week. It's not a surprise to us, but it just seems to be a surprise to everybody else. So, labeling us as the best-kept secret in NASCAR is pretty much a great way of putting it.

"For example, we finished second at Dover and didn't get one bit of press. It was all about how dominant Jeff Gordon was. But who the hell finished second? Maybe being labeled an underdog is a blessing in disguise."

There's no disguising Park's performance in 2001, however. The 33-year-old East Northport, N.Y., native has not only been one of the circuit's biggest surprises, he's also been the guiding light for DEI since team founder Dale Earnhardt died in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Park has consistently been in the top-10 since winning at Rockingham, N.C., one week after Earnhardt's death. His performance has continued to outshine that of teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. (11th) and Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, who has struggled miserably since the season-opener.

"We've had a pretty good start, although we're in a little bit of a slump right now," Park said. "NASCAR kind of threw us a curve ball and gave us a rule change and took some of the bump stops away that we had done of our most testing at the beginning of the year. Right now, we're trying to rebound from that a little bit, but the team's been doing an excellent job.

"We've got three second-place finishes (Darlington, Texas and Dover), which easily could have been four wins. The team's performance has been where we need to be. We kind of struggled at Michigan and got involved in a wreck at Pocono, so we're looking forward to going out to Sonoma, rebound a little bit and try to get another solid top-5 finish."

This weekend's event at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., could be just what the doctor ordered for Park's mini-slump. His first career Winston Cup victory came on a road course last year at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and while he's struggled the last two years at Sears Point, Park is expecting a much better outing Sunday. He's even bringing a secret weapon with him: he'll be driving the same car he used at Watkins Glen last year.

"I'm excited about this weekend," Park said. "We haven't had a real good finish at Sonoma. I've only been there twice. Last year, we ran in the top-10 and thought we had a real good race car, but had a mechanical failure that put us behind a little bit. Sonoma would be a great place to get back on track for this Pennzoil team."

It couldn't come at a better time, as this weekend marks the last race before the last off weekend this season. After being idle next week, the tour begins a grueling marathon of 20 straight race weekends. There will be no more off-weekends until after the season concludes Nov. 18 in Atlanta.

Compounding the situation is that, along with Sears Point, the next seven races could be the toughest stretch of the season, with a variety of track types -- road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, a new venue in Chicago, a flat mile oval at New Hampshire and superspeedways (second stops at Daytona and Pocono, along with the annual visit to Indianapolis).

What teams do in that seven-race stretch could likely set the tone for the remainder of the season ... and likely establish who will be the true contenders for the championship. And that's exactly where Park, crew chief Paul Andrews and the rest of the No.1 team want to be.

"I think it's definitely the hardest stretch of the season," Park said. "I think it's going to set the tone to go into the second half of the season.

"This weekend, we're making our second trip out to the West Coast, and then we go bouncing around all over, from the Southeast to the Midwest to the Northeast. It's going to be a tough stretch for all of us, but I still think these next five to seven races are definitely going to set the tone for the second half of the season."

When Earnhardt died, observers felt DEI would be thrown into turmoil and become lost without its leader. There was even talk about Park, Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip skipping the race at Rockingham. But after extensive discussion, all three teams agreed to carry on, with Park providing one of the most inspiring moments of this season when he not only dedicated his performance going into Rockingham to Earnhardt, but came away with his second career win.

From the time he hired me, two weeks later I was in the shop working. He asked me how much money I wanted to drive for him. I told him to give me a place to stay and enough food so I don't starve to death, and I'm ready.
Park on working for Dale Earnhardt

"That was one of the toughest weeks of my life, trying to make a decision on what do we do," Park said. "We had all just lost our mentor. Do we race, do we not race, what do we do? We all sat down and decided to do what Dale would do -- I mean, Dale lost his best friend Neil Bonnett, and never thought twice about stopping racing. We knew what he would want us to do: pick ourselves up, go to Rockingham and go win that race.

"We were very fortunate to do that. That was one of the toughest wins I've ever had to go through, because with five (laps) to go and feeling like we're in a position to win, I had to keep myself emotionally in check to concentrate to try and go on and win that race. That was tough to do.

"Those last two or three laps, I could hear Dale in the back of my mind, telling me, 'Alright man, it's time to get up on that wheel and go do what your job is to do, and that's to win this race.' "

When Park was en route to winning Busch Series Rookie of the Year in 1997, he caught Earnhardt's eye. In addition to competing on the Busch circuit, Park also competed in the first four Winston Cup events of his career for Earnhardt that same season.

While he failed to qualify for one start and had no top-10 finishes in the other three starts, Park impressed Earnhardt with his savvy and ability behind the wheel enough for Earnhardt to sign Park as his first full-time driver for the fledgling DEI enterprise.

"I think Dale saw that competitive fire in me," Park said. "When we first started talking, it was kind of amazing how we both had come from similar backgrounds. Like his dad, my dad had raced and built his own race cars, and I grew up building my own cars, engines and racing my own stuff, just like Dale.

"So, from the time he hired me, two weeks later I was in the shop working. He asked me how much money I wanted to drive for him. I told him to give me a place to stay and enough food so I don't starve to death, and I'm ready. It wasn't about money; it was about being in a position to win and being with an organization that can win.

"I still feel like I'm in that position, and I still feel very fortunate not only to have the opportunity and the time I spent with Dale, but to continue on in this organization."

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com.

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