Second-place inish is a bittersweet end for GNC Live Well Race Team.
HOMESTEAD, Fla. (Nov. 16) - For Hank Parker Jr. and the members of his GNC Live Well Racing crew, Saturday's Ford 300 NASCAR Busch Series (NBS) event was filled with highs and lows.
While team members were excited over their second-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida, that joy was tempered by the fact that the final NBS event of 2002 was also GNC Live Well's last race as the team's primary sponsor.
Parker and his crew definitely ended the relationship with a bang and helped to give NASCAR fans an exciting end to the season. Parker, who had not stopped for fuel since lap 122 of the 200-lap event, and Scott Wimmer, who had to make a "splash and go" fuel stop with 12 laps remaining, battled for second place in the closing laps of the event.
Wimmer managed to get around Parker and took the lead on the final lap when Jason Keller, who was leading the race, ran out of gas on the frontstretch. It appeared that Parker might mount a charge to pass Wimmer, but Shane Hmiel impeded Parker's progress and prevented him from racing Wimmer for the win.
After the event, Parker rode a roller coaster of emotions. He told reporters that he felt everything from joy over his strong showing, to disappointment with not scoring the win, to sadness about the end of his team's relationship with GNC. Add to that mix the uncertainty of what the future holds for him and the members of his race team, and Parker didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
"I'm in a weird place right now," Parker said. "We had a great finish today, which is an awesome feeling, but I really wanted the win for my guys. Those guys have worked so hard, and there hasn't been a lot to smile about this week. We've been together for two years and shared a lot, but none of us know what's ahead.
"GNC has been an awesome sponsor, but we didn't find out until earlier this week that they aren't coming back next season," Parker said. "That throws everyone on this crew for a loop. By this time of year, most everyone knows what they're going to be doing in 2003, and jobs are getting scarce. Wayne (Jesel, Parker's team owner at Team Jesel Motorsports) has been really good to us, but without a sponsor, this team won't be around next year. I'm looking for a job. My phone will be open on Monday."
In the latter stages of the event, Parker continued to make laps even as other competitors were forced to come to pit road for fuel. Many onlookers recalled that both of Parker's previous wins in the NBS came by stretching the fuel mileage in his No. 36 entry. Parker was quick to point out that it took a strong car and a lot of hard work to put him in position for the finish, and that this was not a "fuel mileage finish."
"We had one of the dominant cars early on," Parker said. "We led some laps and ran up front until we had something go wrong on the right front of our car. It felt like we broke a shim on our right front shock or something, because the car really got tight. We lost a lot of positions, and the crew and I busted our behinds to work our way back up through the field. I had my hands full with that car all day. It wasn't like I was out there for a Saturday afternoon joy ride." Parker started sixth and had worked his way to second place by lap 15. When David Green spun, bringing out the first caution of the event on lap 20, a number of teams elected to pit for tires and fuel, or at least to top off the fuel tank.
Crew chief Gary Cogswell told Parker that he had a different strategy in mind for the GNC team, and Parker stayed out on the track, taking over the top position on the leaderboard.
Parker applauded Cogswell's decision, saying, "I've gotten beat here by doing what those other guys are doing (pitting early in the event). I like what you're doing."
When the race returned to green flag conditions on lap 25, Parker quickly began to pull away from the competition. His dominance was short-lived, however. It wasn't long before the cars of Joe Buford and Shane Hmiel made contact to bring out the second caution flag of the event. As Parker swerved from left to right to remove debris from his tires before the lap 34 restart, he felt his car shudder and knew that something wasn't right with his machine.
His fears were confirmed when the green flag flew, as his lap times dropped off dramatically and he began to drop back in the field. By lap 46, Parker had been shuffled back to 14th position, and thought that he might have a tire losing air pressure. By lap 53, his No. 36 Dodge was being shown in the 23rd position, and Parker was suggesting that he might have a broken shock absorber on his machine.
On lap 76, Parker came to pit road for service under the green flag, which put him a lap down to race leader Michael Waltrip and shuffled him all the way back to the 34th position.
Fortunately, the race remained under green flag conditions, and Parker was able to pick his way back through the field as other competitors came in for pit stops.
By lap 93, Parker found himself in the 26th position, and worked his way back into the top-20 on lap 98. By lap 111, he had passed Ron Hornaday to take over 16th, just as a crash involving Kevin Grubb brought out a caution flag at approximately lap 112.
The yellow flag allowed Parker to pit again for fresh tires and fuel without losing track position. The race was restarted on lap 117, but the cars only made a circuit or two around the speedway before a light rain forced NASCAR to display the caution flag. As the competitors circled the track under the yellow flag, Cogswell brought Parker back in to top off the fuel tank on the No. 36 machine.
The rain abated, and the race went back to green flag conditions on lap 126, with Parker being shown in 17th position. He again marched his way through the field, passing Stacy Compton on lap 163 to take over the 12th spot. On lap 182, Parker had cracked the top-10 as other competitors came in for fuel stops. On lap 193, Parker assumed the second position behind Jason Keller before Scott Wimmer caught Parker and made the pass that put him in position for the win.
The runner-up finish was Parker's third top-five finish of 2002, the most top-fives he's ever scored in a single season. It was also his eighth top-10 finish of the year, which ties the mark he set in 2000. Parker also moved up one spot to 14th in the final NBS Drivers' Points Standings. That ties his career best mark, which also came in 2000.
For Parker, the end of the season is both an ending and a beginning.
"I'm very sad that I'm probably not going to be driving the No. 36 or working with this group of guys next year," Parker said. "On the other hand, I'm excited to see what the future holds for all of them and for myself. I've always heard that the only constant in life is change, so I guess you learn to accept it and move on. "I love all the guys on my team, and I thank them for everything they've done for me. I feel like they always gave me their best, and I can honestly say I did the same for them. I hope that our paths cross again someday. I consider all of them to be my friends, and that's something that definitely won't change."
Of his sponsor, Parker said, "GNC was a perfect fit for me as a sponsor, and they really helped me in my career. You couldn't ask for a better company to work with, and I'll continue to support them by taking their products. I wish them the best, and I thank them for the great relationship we've had for the past two years. I owe them a lot."
With that, Parker and his wife, Wendy, left Homestead-Miami Speedway, and the past, behind.