By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 11, 2002
Steve Park climbed out of his car after the hottest Winston Cup race of the season and received congratulatory back slaps and high-fives from the members of the No. 1 Chevrolet team.
Park didn't win.
He just felt like a winner.
Park's seventh-place finish last weekend at the Brickyard 400 was his first top 10 in 17 races since returning from the brain injury he suffered nearly a year ago in a bizarre accident at Darlington Raceway. The run was like an elixir.
"I just felt elation," Park said.
Park was 10th in Winston Cup points when he was injured in 2001. Everything since has been frustrating, from his lengthy recovery from blurred vision and slurred speech to rumors he would not be retained by Dale Earnhardt Inc. for next season.
But things are looking up.
"It's all about finishing these races with good runs," crew chief Paul Andrews said. "We definitely had some good runs in the past that didn't quite make it, but we also had a lot of just plain bad runs. A good, solid run is what Steve needed for his confidence and what everybody on this team needed."
Park was in a horrifying crash July 28 at Pocono that scared his DEI family. Dale Earnhardt Jr., also involved in the Lap1 wreck that sent Park's car careening into a guardrail and flipping through the grass, sprinted to Park's overturned car.
Waiting anxiously for emergency workers to get Park out of the upside-down car, Earnhardt embraced the driver when he emerged uninjured. Perhaps the close call put things in perspective at DEI.
After exploring its options and finding little to choose from, DEI appears likely to re-sign Park, 34. The driver recently turned down a one-year contract extension, hoping for a longer commitment, but the parties were negotiating last week. An agreement seems likely.
"We've worked so hard," said Park, handpicked by the late Dale Earnhardt as DEI's first driver in 1996. "I know we can get it done. As a team, we know how to win. We've had a bad half a year. Last year was great up until the point I got hurt. The contract negotiation stuff and putting the silly season spin on things makes it seem like a tragic year, but it's only half a year."
Park, whose first full season was 1999, has two Winston Cup victories, including his first in 2000 at Watkins Glen, where he starts 36th today. Though he crashed on the first lap at Pocono, Park said he saw the team turn a corner in its preparation for that event.
"At Pocono is the first time I saw people walking around with their heads up, with a little skip in their step. We qualified good, ran good and ended up on our roof. We didn't get the chance to run the whole race. So this is definitely a morale booster, not only for myself, but for the entire Pennzoil team.
"I think we've really turned the corner. We've taken baby steps and we wanted to finish in the top 10. That was like a moral victory for us. Now we need to take it a step further, we need a top five and then take that to a win."
Earnhardt Jr., who in his efforts to play a larger role in decisionmaking at DEI was blunt about Park's subpar performance this season, seems more understanding since being shaken up in a hard crash at California. He likes what he sees of Park lately.
"I'm no doctor, but I think he's recovered 100 percent from his injuries," Earnhardt said. "I think the only thing he lacks now is the confidence he had in himself before. ... We just have to get the guys who work on the car to stand behind him and put themselves in position for a good season next year."
Andrews said the team believes in Park. He wants to make the most of the final 15 races this season to set the stage for a successful 2003.
"We're happy to have Steve and we'd love to have him back for next year, but that's not up to us," Andrews said. "That's up to Steve and DEI. We just want to finish this year on a good note and get Steve back to where he was. He's a good friend of ours and everybody on the team. We've been through a lot together and we want to see him back where he needs to be."