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Park Out Of Reverse

Knight Ridder

In a way, Steve Park is still suffering from the serious wreck he had at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in 2001.

Oh, he's long since recovered from the head injury that ended his season. He says he suffers no major effects when behind the wheel.

The pains affecting Park are the ones to his reputation and career.

And it sounds as if those hurt like crazy.

As the 2001 season began, Park appeared to be headed for driving stardom.

He had landed a job driving a Nextel Cup car for the high-profile Dale Earnhardt Inc. team and began capitalizing in 1999 and 2000, when he finished 14th and 11th in points respectively.

In the first race of '01, car owner Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash at the Daytona 500.

Park pulled himself together and won at Rockingham the following week.

He continued to drive well through the spring and summer. When he left Bristol, Tenn., that September, he had five top-five finishes and was 10th in points.

But the following week at Darlington, he hit the wall hard during a Busch Series race. Park suffered severe head injuries.

He improved after rehabilitation, but continued to have physical problems. He didn't race again until the fifth race of the 2002 Cup season.

When Park did get into his car again, many in the media and some in the garage said he shouldn't have. His speech patterns were off, and it didn't seem he should be driving 190 mph.

His results were not great after the return, adding more voices to the chorus saying he should not be racing.

Park said injuries didn't affect his driving and he doesn't think the bad rap was fair.

"It educated me on how the media can pretty much beat you up when they want to," he said.

"It pretty much drove me out of the sport of Nextel Cup racing because they labeled me as damaged goods."

Park was cut loose by DEI -- which has been run by Teresa Earnhardt since her husband's death -- 11 races into the 2003 season.

Richard Childress Racing, the team Earnhardt drove for, hired Park for the final 24 races of 2003, but did not bring him back for 2004.

He insists that neither his physical condition nor his driving skills have had anything to do with his lack of Cup success since the wreck.

"I know full well how the team had fallen apart in the past," Park said of the DEI car. "Looking back, the No. 1 (DEI) team has definitely improved since I left ... not. And the 30 (RCR) team has definitely run better since I left ... not. So what can you do?"

What Park has done is land with Orleans Racing in the Truck Series.

He replaced Brendan Gaughan -- who moved to Cup -- on a team that finished fourth in 2003.

The team started slowly in 2004, but appears to be on the mend.

It has finished 13th or better in seven of the past eight races, and has finished in the top six in three of the past four -- a stretch that includes fourth places June 25 at The Milwaukee Mile and July 3 at Kansas Speedway.

"We've been working hard to get to where we need to be," Park said.

The Truck Series is where he needs to be, he said.

"I'm enjoying it," Park said. "I'm enjoying the schedule and just being able to get some of my life back."

Does he miss the glamour of the Cup series?

"Nope," Park said. "I really don't miss the hectic schedule and the hectic pace and the life that you lead.

"(The Truck series is) a place that lets you do what you want to do and that's race and have your Sundays off."

For Park, it has also helped erase some of the pain of a wreck that happened three years ago.
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