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Park glad bad times 'behind me'

The Courier-Journal

At the start of the 2001 season, race driver Steve Park was viewed as a championship contender in what's now known as the Nextel Cup Series. By September he was fighting for his career after suffering a serious head injury in a crash.

Five months after that, Park's mentor and boss - legendary driver Dale Earnhardt - was killed in the Daytona 500.

"It's been a trying few years," said Park, who will drive in tonight's Built Ford Tough 225, a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Kentucky Speedway, as he continues rebuilding his career. "Between Dale losing his life tragically, the team struggling to recover from his death and my injuries, things were tough. I'm just glad it's all behind me."

Park, 36, experienced a meteoric rise to NASCAR's top rung after signing in 1996 with Dale Earnhardt Inc., a team Earnhardt created and owned. Park was the first Nextel Cup driver for that team, which now fields cars for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip and John Andretti.

In only 18 months, Park - a native of Long Island, N.Y. - went from driving modifieds in the Northeast to the cockpit of an Earnhardt car at Darlington, S.C., and Talladega, Ala.

"It was a culture shock," Park said. "I went from being a New Yorker to working for Dale Earnhardt and one of the largest race teams around. Things were definitely different."

Despite his inexperience on NASCAR's biggest stage, Park made an immediate impact for DEI by scoring two victories and 30 top-10 finishes in his first five seasons. He also posted three Busch Series victories in spot-duty roles.

"It was great to win races for Dale," Park said. "He was like a second father to me. He and Theresa (Earnhardt's wife) gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and I will always be grateful for that."

In 2000 he enjoyed his highest showing in Nextel Cup season points with an 11th-place finish, but his career began to stall less than a year later after he sustained a severe concussion in a brutal accident involving Larry Foyt during a Busch race at Darlington.

The brain injury sidelined Park for the rest of the season and the first four races in 2002. His long and intensive rehabilitation included speech therapy.

Motorsports media speculated that Park might never drive again. When he did slide back into a car, doubts shifted to the garage area. Was it safe for Park to drive?

"I think all drivers will have concern about another driver coming back from a head injury," said Johnny Benson, who drives Cup and Busch cars. "You're most worried about another accident, and in this sport you're going to have another impact. We wonder how mentally and physically ready a driver is."

However, Park said all the skepticism simply motivated him.

"I really rehabilitated myself to get back in the car again," he said. "When you're getting hammered by the media all the time, it puts doubt in your owner and sponsor's mind. The national media kind of labeled me as damaged goods, and it pretty much ran me out of the business of Nextel Cup racing.

"I think I was the only person that didn't waver confidence-wise during that time."

Orleans Racing didn't waver either. The truck series team signed Park during the off-season.

"We had no problems with hiring Steve," said Charlie Wilson, crew chief for the team owned by Mike Gaughan, father of Nextel Cup rookie Brendan Gaughan. "We knew he could drive."

But first Park had to address emotions. Besides dealing with an uncertain future, he faced life without Earnhardt.

"That injury (the concussion) came at a time of great loss. Not only with Dale, but there was also the loss of key crew members," Park said. "Not having him around just made things that much harder on the team."

Doctors and NASCAR officials decided by the fifth race of 2002 that Park was ready to drive again, but things weren't the same for Park, who struggled much of the next two seasons. Finally, in May 2003, Park split with DEI.

"We had a good relationship, and there was a lot of open discussion about the team's performance," Park said. "I felt we didn't have the ingredients to win races anymore, and they felt the performance wasn't where it needed to be, so we ... parted friends."

Park finished last season driving for Richard Childress, who, ironically, was Earnhardt's car-owner for six of his seven Cup title seasons.

"Life is about enjoying yourself and succeeding at what you do," said Park, who now lives in Port Orange, Fla. "I can do both of those things with Orleans Racing in the truck series. This year racing has been like it was three or four years ago, and it's great."

After getting off to a slow start Park has scored back-to-back fourth-place finishes and will enter tonight's 8 EDT race as a strong threat to register his first truck victory. He is 12th in points.

"There were a lot of changes within this team during the off-season, not only with me replacing Brendan, but with some key personnel leaving and NASCAR changing some of the configurations on the trucks," Park said. "...We're on the right track, and we'll be winning races soon."

Jeffersonville driver Frank Kimmel, who has raced against Park in Nextel Cup and trucks, respects his colleague.

"When I have raced against Steve, he has always been a gentleman on the track," said Kimmel, a five-time ARCA titlist. "He takes care of you and your equipment, as well as himself."

Wilson said Park is especially adept at coming from behind in a race and also displays a cool demeanor.

"He's as calm as he can be. He's the calmest driver I've been around," Wilson said, citing a recent race at The Milwaukee Mile, where a tire got away from a crew member during a pit stop, an infraction that forced Park to go to the rear of the field. He finished fourth.

In the meantime, there's speculation whether Park will return to Nextel Cup. Wilson says Park has the ability.

"Yes, by all means," Wilson said. "I hope he's with us for two or three years, but he'll get back (to Nextel Cup)."

Park, however, said he isn't interested in Cup racing for now.

"Right now I'm really enjoying what I'm doing," he said. "The last two years in the Nextel Cup really wore me thin. It's nice to step away from that and be involved with this team and series. Unless it's with a first-rate team, I don't have any desire to get back in a Nextel Cup car to just run 20th."
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