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Only one reason to drive

By DAVE D'ONOFRIO Monitor staff

Steve Park has been through the Bojangles drive-thru with Dale Earnhardt, and can trade tales of the Intimidator with anyone in the sport. He's twice been doused by the liquid spoils of victory lane in the Sprint Cup Series. And he's finished separate seasons among the top 11 in each of NASCAR's three national tours.

So why, pray tell, is Park spending 2008 as a pilot in the Camping World Series East?


"What's the goal of racing?" he repeated rhetorically. "Oh, win."

And so that's what Park intends to do today, when NASCAR's latest landing spot for up-and-comers invades Iowa, and later at 11 other events throughout the course of the summer.

His résumé includes experience in either the Cup, Nationwide or Craftsman Truck series every year from 1995-2006, and he's more accomplished than some who hold seats in those tours. But Park was unable to secure a place with a team at any of those levels that he believed capable of winning, so the native Long Islander has returned, instead, to the East Series - a place where he helped carve a career, and a place where he could get his hands greasy once again.

"Right now the economy is one that it's tough to get sponsors," he said this week, "so everyone's struggling right now, and I just refuse to go to a team that I feel is not capable of being at the pinnacle, no matter what level you're at - Trucks, Busch or Sprint Cup.

"For me, it's nice to take a little time off, work with these guys and try to develop the cars into cars that can win races. The competition is great. There's a lot of young guys out there that can win races, a lot of good race teams out there. The main thing is to win."

Park won plenty at the regional racing level in the 1990s, both in the Busch North Series (now known as Camping World East), and even more so in modifieds, which is where he experienced the success that ultimately attracted attention nationally.

Through the summer of 1996 he'd earned two starts in what's now the Nationwide Series, and a couple more in a truck - still, a schedule featuring more than 100 races in a season was packed mostly with small events. Until the phone rang. Then rang again.

The first time, Park didn't believe it could possibly be Earnhardt leaving him a message. The caller had identified himself as such, but Park figured it must be a prank from friends, so he ignored it. A few days later, though, the same guy dialed back.

"He was pretty nice the first time he called, and the second time he called he was like, 'Damnit, Steve Park, call me back. I've called you twice now,' " Park said. "I was like, 'Oh my God, maybe that is Dale Earnhardt.' "

It was, and soon after Park was shuttled to North Carolina via private plane, and ultimately hired as the first full-time Cup driver for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Over the first two seasons he ran a total of 22 times for the fledgling organization, but in the end he spent parts of seven seasons in the stable, making 156 starts, registering 33 top-10 finishes and notching a couple of wins.

DEI dropped Park after 11 races in 2003, and while he was a free agent for all of 14 hours before Richard Childress signed him for the rest of the season, RCR would not renew the deal for 2004. And Park has never returned to the Cup series.

During a day-long test session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this week, he wouldn't say whether it's his goal to return to NASCAR's top levels. Rather, he reiterated his purpose is to get the No. 35 Waste Management Chevrolet into the winner's circle - and in an age when promising development drivers powered by rich teams tend to dominate the East, that's enough of a challenge.

"Now, if you win a race in this Camping World Series, you're doing something," he said. "You're beating Gibbs, Childress and Earnhardt teams, to say the least. It's amazing from running the Busch North Series what it used to be and what it's developed into today. It's night and day."

So, too, may be the scene, scope and significance for Park. But at the core, it's still the same sport.

"I've been racing cars since I was 15, and I just turned 41 years old. I love racing. I still love racing," he said. "My main goal is if I can't get in a car, or get with a team that can win races, what's the point of racing? The point of racing is to win."
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