Park shows flashes of talent

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (Feb. 23, 1998)

If Steve Park enjoys a long and prosperous driving career, crew members and fans might remember Sunday's GM Goodwrench Service Plus 400 as the race where Park first showed the world the special skills that have vaulted him from the NASCAR Featherlite Modified Tour to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in little more than a year.

Park, who was Raybestos Rookie of the Year last season in the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division, didn't win Sunday -- he didn't even finish the race.

He crashed and endured a lot of bad luck. Two caution flags flew while he was sitting in the pits and, despite a game effort from the driver, the car couldn't maintain a fast enough pace to remain on the track at the finish.

But what the 30-year-old New York native did was find the cure for an ill-handling car, battle a tough and slippery track that devoured others and drive the bright yellow Pennzoil car past competitors who finished in the top-five positions.

In short, what Park did Sunday was prove to everyone why he is in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series and why he may soon be a frontrunner.

"I think we showed the capability of our team and how strong it's going to be in the future," Park said. "Rockingham is a hard track to get a hold of and we did it. I think if we had a few breaks here and there we could have been up in the top-five."

Park's day began slowly as he started 19th and ran there in the race's early stages. He stayed on the lead lap trying different lines on the sandy, high-banked track while he and crew chief Philippe Lopez debated changes to improve the Pennzoil Monte Carlo.

"The car seemed to run loose then tight. But about midway through the race we seemed to hit on something it really liked and we took off," Park said.

Just before that at the 200-lap mark, Park pitted the Pennzoil Monte Carlo. As his Dale Earnhardt Inc. crew changed the left side tires, an accident on the backstretch brought out the caution. About eight cars had yet to pit, so when Park returned to the track he was a lap down.

"That really killed us," Park said. "There is nothing you can really do about that. It's just a matter of bad luck. Some days luck is with you and some days like today it's against you."

When the green flag fell with less than 40 laps remaining in the race, the changes made by Lopez and Park began to show. Park whizzed around several cars and worked to get his lap back. He passed Mark Martin, Jeremy Mayfield and Rusty Wallace -- all dominant cars.

After another caution flag flew seconds after Park pitted, Park and Ernie Irvan started ahead of the leaders. If they remained in that position and a caution flew, both would retrieve their lost lap. A caution did fly -- but it was because Park and Irvan crashed together, triggering a multi-car accident in the first turn.

"I don't really know what happened," Park said. "From what I heard I was holding my line, and Ernie went into the corner and got loose and into me. I've heard Ernie said his power steering was out, but whatever the reason it was a shame because I thought we could get our lap back and then really race with the leaders."

Park's DEI crew worked hard to repair the damaged Pennzoil Monte Carlo. The accident left Park without sufficient braking capability and consequently his lap times were too slow to warrant continuing.

As Park sat in the pits, Jeff Gordon notched his first victory of the 1998 season and moved to third in the 1998 point standings behind Wallace and Earnhardt. For Park, the standings didn't reflect his positive feelings after the race.

"I think we can take a lot of positives from this race," Park said. "It isn't how we wanted to finish, but we proved we can race with them and that's an accomplishment."

Park finished 31st and moved to 35th in the point standings. The Pennzoil Monte Carlo returns to the track Friday for Bud Pole Qualifying at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday's Las Vegas 400.

Courtesy of NASCAR Online