FONTANA, Calif. -- It's a milestone that many others have already achieved but for Pennzoil driver Steve Park, beginning his 100th race is something special after seeing his Winston Cup career almost taken away from him during his rookie ...
FONTANA, Calif. -- It's a milestone that many others have already achieved but for Pennzoil driver Steve Park, beginning his 100th race is something special after seeing his Winston Cup career almost taken away from him during his rookie season.
"I can tell you that I hope the next 100 don't come as hard as the first 100 because I think we all know what I went through in my rookie year, getting busted up and missing a lot of races," said Park who went through extensive physical therapy following the practice accident in Atlanta. "We've been through a lot in these first 100, and, not just as a driver, but also as an organization (DEI) especially with everything we've been through this year (referring to the death of team owner and mentor Dale Earnhardt)."
Part of a rookie class that held great promise, Park was the first of that group of three from 1998 to win a Winston Cup event with his victory last August at Watkins Glen. His rookie cohort Jerry Nadeau accomplished that feat three months later in the season finale at Atlanta; and sadly, Kenny Irwin didn't find winner's circle before his passing last July.
"It definitely hasn't been an easy 100 races and, to be honest, it snuck up on me," added Park, who has represented the PennzoilÒ brand in each of those events. "I know we won in our 77th race so I can't believe 23 races have gone by since then. It's pretty neat to think that I will have competed in 100 Winston Cup races. I also think it's pretty cool to be able to say that in those 100 races that we've won two, maybe three after Sunday, and there's not a lot of guys out there can say that."
"Gaining the respect of the other fellow competitors is something that you have to go through," said Park, regarding the one of the most difficult challenges faced as a young driver. "I think those were some of the roughest races...getting yourself competitive enough to run up front and then, when you do get the opportunity to run near the top 10, receiving the respect of the guys that are up there on a week-to-week basis. That has probably been the largest hurdle I've had to jump."
As the early years have gone by, Park has seen steady improvement in his performance on the track and has watched the Pennzoil team grow. Missing 15 races in 1998, the rookie didn't score any top 10 finishes; however, with the addition of a new crew chief (Paul Andrews) in 1999, Park posted five of them. It was the 2000 season that saw Park come of age with the victory, scoring a total of 13 top 10s that year. Continuing the success of the second half of last year, the 33-year-old driver took the Pennzoil Monte Carlo to victory lane in just the second outing of the 2001 Winston Cup season and continues the make great strides with each race.
"The first time you get on these Winston Cup tracks, with the lack of experience, you don't know what the car needs and what you need in order to go fast," Park said. "The only way you get the experience and knowledge you need in order to be successful there is by putting the numbers on the board and going to these places two or three times. So it's just the track time that we've received and the guidance I got from Dale Earnhardt, along with the support we've had from Pennzoil, that has contributed to our growth and has put us a position to have the opportunity to race consistently."
"Anytime you can run more races and finish the races, sometimes you finish running bad and sometimes you finish running good, it's always a plus for the next time you go there because you know what you didn't like and you know what you didn't want to feel," said Andrews about the maturity of Park. "I think it's one of the things that he's developed in the time that we've been together...what he needs to feel in a race car for him and not necessarily what's the best thing for Dale Jr. or whoever. It's what is the best thing for Steve Park as far as a set up and the feel of the car that he needs to be fast and competitive."
Fast and competitive is what the Pennzoil team seeks for this weekend's contest at Fontana. Although he has just two previous starts at California Speedway, Park gained confidence for the NAPA 500 during a recent test session at Michigan. Not only did the Pennzoil crew learn information for the race later this summer, Andrews also used this time to gather data for the event at Fontana since the two tracks are very similar.
"We've got a lot of good things going on and we're really running good every week and it's a real neat deal," added Andrews. "Going to Fontana is a great place to be the 100th race for him (Park)."
"The last 30 races are the ones that I favor the most," commented Park, reflecting back on his young career. "What's really neat is being able to watch the progress of the Pennzoil crew, from the 1st to the 100th race, evolve over the last couple of years to a group that went from a start-up team to a team that is capable of competing for Winston Cup wins on a weekly basis. We've been able to keep this organization together for a long time and that breeds success. I know we struggled in the beginning but we are now reaping the benefits of that dedication to each other. Hopefully when we're sitting down talking about our 200th race, we'll be talking about 10 or 20 wins."
So whether it's his 100th start or his 200th start, you can bet that Park has another victory in mind -- striving to make this milestone all so much more special.