Park Returns To Roots In Hope Of Returning To Top
By Jeff Hood | Senior Writer
Veteran driver Steve Park hopes success in a NASCAR series designed to showcase up-and-coming talent will resurrect his racing career.
The 41-year-old Park took a step in that direction Saturday night when he passed Jody Lavender for the lead with five laps remaining then pulled away from Ryan Truex. to win the NASCAR Camping World Series East Series 150 at Adirondack International Speedway in Beaver Falls, N.Y.
It was Park’s first win in a NASCAR-sanctioned event since Feb. 2005 when he went to victory lane in a Truck Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
“I thought midway through the race [at Adirondack] that we had a car capable of winning,” said Park, who was running sixth with 10 laps remaining. “I just wanted to put myself in a position to win.
“With the double file restarts, it really made it interesting. I intentionally kept myself in an odd position because the inside is so valuable at that race track.”
A two-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series who was born in Islip, N.Y, winning in his home state on Saturday was an added bonus for Park.
“My home state has been good to me with the win at Watkins Glen in the Cup car [in 2000] and breaking the dry spell like we had,” said Park, whose other Cup win came in Rockingham, N.C. in 2001, just eight days following the death of his car owner, Dale Earnhardt.
“To go back to my home state and get a win, it’s been great.”
Considered one of the rising stars in NASCAR earlier this decade, Park’s career suffered an unexpected setback following a vicious crash in Darlington, S.C. in September 2001.
A concussion left the former modified standout out of action for nearly six months.
But the magic never returned after he climbed back behind the wheel of Dale Earnhardt Inc’s No. 1 Chevrolet in March 2002. Just over a year later, he was released by DEI.
“When Dale passed away, things started digressing at DEI,” Park said. “When Dale gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, I wasn’t going to jump ship until they kicked me out.
“But they kicked me out and I went on to Richard Childress Racing to fill in.”
He finished out the 2003 season for RCR in the Nationwide Series before moving to NASCAR’s Truck Series the following season.
Park, who claims he isn’t bitter over being released by DEI or RCR, says his biggest blunder was leaving NASCAR Truck Series team owner Jim Harris in 2006 to jump to the Nationwide Series.
But the promised ride in NASCAR’s junior circuit never materialized.
“I was driving a truck for Jim Harris and I had the opportunity to move on to what I thought was bigger and better things,” Park said. “But the opportunity never came about.
“And like musical chairs, when the music stopped, I had no chair to sit in. That was just a rotten decision on my part.”
At an age when many drivers contemplate retirement, Park, who turns 42 later this month, said his competitive fires still burn.
His immediate focus is on winning upcoming Camping World East races at Lime Rock, Loudon and Dover. But he has his long-term sights set on a bigger prize.
“I’m working hard to get back into a Truck or the Nationwide Series,” Park said. “Look at what [51-year-old] Ron Hornaday Jr. has done. He’s quite a bit older than I am.
“I’ve raced all my life and it’s in my blood. I still have the desire to win.
“I’ve always had the confidence in my abilities to win races. It’s convincing everybody else that’s the hardest thing to do.”
– Jeff Hood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org