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Long Islander Steve Park looking for more wins, fun

The New York Times

Steve Park finally won a race, so now the focus can be on something else - like, say, winning again. Park, a driver from Long Island, is tired of hearing about how a crash that resulted in a head injury led to a slump that lasted for nearly four years. "That's so far from the truth, it's unbelievable," Park said on the telephone from his home in Port Orange, Fla. "Everyone needs to get over it. It was three years ago."

He said he was over it. Park, recruited by Dale Earnhardt in 1996 to drive one of Earnhardt's Winston Cup cars, is now a regular in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, which held its most recent race Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Park had engine failure and finished 35th.) The weekend racing at Atlanta culminates Sunday with a Nextel Cup race, the Golden Corral 500.

Michael Gaughan, his new boss, said, "I think Steve is back, and he's as good as ever."

Park, 37, won his first truck race Feb. 25 in Fontana, Calif. It was his first victory since winning a Winston Cup race at Rockingham, N.C., on Feb. 26, 2001, eight days after Earnhardt, his boss, was killed in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Park, the son of the legendary NASCAR modified-car racer Bob Park, did not win again for Dale Earnhardt Inc. He was injured in a Busch Series race that September in Darlington, S.C., and missed the rest of that season and the first four races of the 2002 season.

In the meantime, Park said, his race team was "picked apart" by Dale Earnhardt Inc., which had reassigned some of his crew members to work with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others to work with Michael Waltrip. Park did not win a race in 2002 and was fired early in the 2003 season.

"People from the outside looked at it as me struggling," Park said.

He drove 24 races for Richard Childress' team in 2003, then looked for another ride. He says now that joining Childress' multicar team was probably the biggest mistake he had ever made. Park did not have a competitive car there, either.

"I went from losing one job to a dead-end job," he said.

Gaughan said Park was not his first choice to succeed his son, Brendan, who joined the Nextel Cup series before the 2004 season as a driver for Roger Penske. But Gaughan said he thought Park could still drive.

"Park was kind of a known quantity," Gaughan said. "I was never worried about his driving."

That, Park said, was the whole point. When he resumed driving with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2002, Park said he felt he had recovered from the head injury. The No. 1 car that is owned by the Earnhardt team and that was driven by Park, he said pointedly, is still not running very fast. "Getting rid of me was not the fix," he said.

Getting Park did not appear to be the answer at first for Gaughan, either. Park drove in 25 races last year for the Orleans racing team and did not win any of them. The team lost races in almost every conceivable way.

"We said in the off-season we needed to limit how this happens to us," said Park, who, despite his lack of success, was voted by fans as the most popular driver in the truck series last season.

In an interview a month ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Park was the first to meet him in victory lane after he won a race last November at the same Darlington track at which Park was hurt three years earlier.

"He doesn't allow any setbacks," Earnhardt Jr. said. "He sets his own expectations. And when something happens, he doesn't let it bother him. He doesn't let it show."

In the first race of the season, on Feb. 18 at Daytona, Park's Dodge truck encountered engine problems, and he finished 23rd. But Park and his team finally caught a break in the 200-mile race at California Speedway. A truck driven by Mike Bliss ran out of gas.

As Bliss' truck slowed, Park took the lead with less than six laps remaining in the 100-lap race. He won by more than one full second - practically a breeze. Park, Gaughan said, did not have much gas left in his tank at the end of the race.

After an unsuccessful season with Penske in the Nextel Cup series, Brendan Gaughan has rejoined his father's team this year. The two drivers, once regarded as up-and-comers in the Nextel Cup series, hugged each other in victory lane.

"They work together as a team," Michael Gaughan said. "They're really rooting for each other."

What Park labeled as "three years of turmoil" seemed to be over. There are 11 fewer truck races than stock-car races on the schedule, and Park said he enjoyed a pace that was less punishing. He has fun driving again because he is fast enough to win.

"I'm not going to get into a car and run 20th again," Park said. "If I can't win a race, what's the fun of racing?"
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