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Truck series gains popularity, may pass Busch series with fans

By Bill Whitehead

DAYTONA BEACH Dodge truck driver Steve Park looked point-blank at the media last week and gave them a dose of their own medicine, saying, "Name five full-time drivers in the Busch Series. I bet you can't do it."

By most accounts, he had stumped them all and made his point: the second-level series lacks the name recognition that the Craftsman Truck Series has in abundance. In all, 16 full- or part-time CTS drivers have raced in the Nextel Cup Series, bringing an identity to the series as it prepares to embark on its 11th year of competition.

The full-field proliferation of ex-Cup drivers has Park excited and willing to make a bold prediction, saying, "If you can win a truck race, you can win a Busch race, and the Craftsman Truck Series will overshadow the Busch Series this year, mark my words."

The racing career of the 37-year-old Park, though, wasn't supposed to be like this. It started with a phone call from the late Dale Earnhardt a message he thought was a practical joke played by friends. But despite a pair of wins one of them at Rockingham eight days after the Intimidator died at Daytona Park's career has been characterized by misfortune.

Battling Kenny Irwin Jr. for 1998 Rookie of the Year honors, Park wrecked his DEI-owned Chevrolet at Atlanta in practice, suffering a broken femur, clavicle and chipped teeth. In September of 2001, he wrecked with Larry Foyt in a freak accident under caution at Darlington and received a concussion that sidelined him for six months.

"My team had been picked apart when I came back to DEI, for whatever reason," said Park, who returned to racing at Darlington the following March. "Dale wasn't alive to help preserve the team, and I was being attacked by an outside source the media."

The Long Island, N.Y., native said every account of his weekend by the sport's writers focused on the injury and whether or not he was 100-percent healthy. Finally, after a brief stint at Richard Childress Racing ended in his release after the 2003 season, Park decided to move on and go truck racing.

"I was like 'You guys can keep your Cup stuff and enjoy the show. I'm going somewhere else.' I found the truck series and started enjoying myself again," he said.

But the enjoyment won't be complete until Park wins his first CTS race. Last year he managed a career-best third-place finish in the No. 62 Orleans Racing Dodge previously driven by Brendan Gaughan but said it's easy to get down when a season passes and the team goes winless.

"We always sit back and think about what Dale (Earnhardt) would do if he were here. He'd kick us in the butt, tell us to suck it up and go race and win," he said. "When Dale was alive, everything was enjoyable. Everything went sour when he passed away."

While the manner in which Park arrived in the CTS is much different and filled with disappointment unlike any other driver's plight, the series is gradually developing a reputation as being a second-chance opportunity for some familiar names in NASCAR.

Ricky Craven, Ron Hornaday Jr., Jimmy Spencer, Johnny Benson, Robert Pressley, Casey Atwood and Todd Bodine are all former Cup drivers seeking to redeem themselves by moving to the series and running up front.

And current Cup star Mark Martin, retiring at the end of 2005, has expressed interest in fielding a truck team next year in association with Roush Racing, perhaps paving the way in the future for his 13-year-old son Matt, who competes regularly at nearby New Smyrna Speedway.

The 25-race season stops at 22 different tracks from Florida to California. The schedule features 18 events on superspeedways and seven on short tracks, from the shortest track (the 1/2-mile facility in Mansfield, Ohio) to the longest (the 2.5-mile high-speed track in Daytona Beach).
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