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Sweet silence for Park

Steve Park's February win quieted critics who thought his career was finished after his 2001 accident.

By Aaron McFarling
The Roanoke Times

"It's so easy to blame your injury. Once we get back to Victory Lane it will quiet everybody down." -Steve Park in The Roanoke Times, April 27, 2002.

Steve Park stood in the Martinsville Speedway garage a few weeks ago, bundled up in a jacket. Away from all the noise, nearly three years after making that comment, Park was approached by a visitor during a break in practice.

"Do you have anything to say to your critics now?" Park was asked.

Park grinned.

"I'm baa-aack," he said, singing the second word as much as saying it. "That pretty much says it all, man."

And maybe it does. Maybe Park's victory in the Craftsman Truck Series race in California on Feb.25 - his first win in any series since a serious crash set him back 3 1/2 years ago - truly will mark the end of all the criticism, heartache and pain.

Park sure hopes so. He could use a little peace and quiet. Ever since the day in September 2001 when his Busch car and a promising Cup career both hit the wall at Darlington, he's been trying to shed a label no driver ever wants to have: Damaged goods.

Twice he was fired from Cup teams. And all along, there were rumblings in the garage that Park may never fully recover, that the wreck that bruised Park's brain stem - temporarily impairing his vision and slowing his speech - had left him unfit to be on the track.

Park disagreed. Not only did he feel he belonged, but he believed he could be at least as competitive as he was before the injury, when he won two Cup races for Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

"I felt inside that I could win races," said Park, 37. "But we know in this sport that you can't win unless you surround yourself with good people and good equipment. Those opportunities weren't coming because of the fact that everybody used me as a scapegoat, used me as the reason we weren't winning.

"That hurt me inside. I knew that maybe I'd never get the opportunity again because people thought all this was happening because of me."

When Richard Childress Racing decided not to retain Park after 2003, the driver's future looked bleak. But the Orleans Racing Team decided to give him a chance in the truck series last season.

"We never questioned it: He was the best driver out there," said truck driver Brendan Gaughan, whose father, Michael, owns the Orleans Racing Team. "Look at the records of the [Cup] teams he drove for, that Steve was oh-so-hurt with. They haven't won since he left. So it lends no credence [to the damaged goods theory] if you really do some investigation."

Still, criticism remained during the 2004 season, when Park went winless for a team that had won six truck races the previous year. Park, always a well-liked driver among fans when he raced in the Cup series, took some consolation in being named the Most Popular Driver in the truck series.

"That's really what's kept me afloat," Park said. "Just knowing that the people that support the sport think the world of you, that's given me the motivation to stick it out."

The reward finally came at the end of February, in the second race of the year. Park's victory made him the 10th driver to win a race in NASCAR's three major series and, more importantly, revitalized the driver and team.

Park struggled in the most recent race in Atlanta. But as he comes to Martinsville this weekend, he knows he won't have to answer questions on whether he can win.

"I'm hoping that whole story is put to rest now," Park said. "The story of winning races and getting hurt and now winning again is like, The End. So let's close the book and let's move on."

He's baa-aack. And the silence sure is sweet.Steve Park feature for Martinsville weekCraftsman Truck Race info:

Kroger 250

Martinsville Speedway

Saturday, April 9

1 p.m.

For tickets, call (877) 722-3849

Born: August 23, 1966

Hometown: East Northport, N.Y.

Marital Status: Single

Truck Owner: Michael Gaughan

Truck Make: Dodge
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