Steve Park confident the final piece of the puzzle is in place
By Lee Montgomery, NASCAR.COM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Brendan Gaughan nearly won the 2002 Craftsman Truck Series championship, and his departure from Orleans Racing was the perfect opportunity for Steve Park.
At least it seemed that way. Nothing, of course, is easy in NASCAR, and Park quickly found out how tough the Truck Series could be, especially when things are not at all as they seem.
Gaughan's team won six races in 2002, but crew chief Shane Wilson and some other personnel left to join Gaughan in Nextel Cup.
"Brendan left so late in the year that it kind of left us scrambling for people," offers Park, speaking by phone from Florida. "When you're scrambling for people, it kind of hurts in the first half of the year."
Park's luck, too, was non-existent. Well, he had luck. It was simply the wrong kind.
"At the beginning of the year, it seemed like anything that was out there would run into us," says Park.
So after four races, Park had one DNF, two 27th-place finishes, a 26th and a 12th.
Things did better for Park and Orleans. The team found a team manager in Fritz Kroyer and settled on a crew chief in Charlie Wilson. A strong second half of the season helped Park finish ninth in points, up from 22nd after four races. He posted six top-10 finishes in the final 11 races, and though Park didn't win, he knew 2005 would be better.
"I think the way we ended the year last year is the way we're going to start this year," says Park, stopping at a fast-food drive-thru. "It's definitely a lot better than the way we started 2004. Are we done yet? The answer to that is no. Even at the end of last year, we still wanted to get two or three more people. We spent all winter trying to accumulate those people. At least we're going to start off where we ended off the season last year. We're definitely in better shape."
Oh, yeah, Orleans Racing returns one other person for 2005: Gaughan is back after a tough rookie season in Nextel Cup. The son of team owner Michael Gaughan, Brendan will drive in about half the Truck races this season -- and perhaps more.
Gaughan also helps fill a void within the team, says Park.
"What better of a person to put in charge of being the day-to-day guy that runs the shop," says Park. "It was a spot we were looking to fill, and we were trying to find the right person, and Brendan's situation popped up."
Gaughan's return to the team, though it may be a drain on Park's No. 62 truck, is definitely a shot in the arm.
"Brendan's enthusiasm seems to catch everybody, including myself," says Park. "He's a great leader, a great motivator.
"He definitely wants to get the people in place. Unfortunately, the people that went with him didn't come back with him. We spent the whole year last year assembling the people we needed, and now he's almost in the same boat I was in last year."
That's the next task for Orleans Racing, getting two trucks up to speed instead of one.
"We know what the chore is ahead of us, and that's to get two trucks that can run as good as the one truck," says Park. "It creates more work for the 62 truck to get the 61 team up to speed. It's not going to be easy, but it's a challenge we're all going to welcome with open arms."
Besides, Park said, if his team can overcome the rough start to 2004, it can overcome this.
Park pauses for a moment to pay the cashier, and his lab Harley lets out a friendly bark. Park has been under considerable pressure the last few seasons, returning to Dale Earnhardt Inc. from a head injury, trying to perform for Richard Childress Racing and then replacing Gaughan.
The 2005 season will be the first time since before the injury he will have spent two consecutive full seasons with the same team.
"I know how important it was with the Pennzoil team from the first year to the second year, from the second year to the third year and so on and so on," says Park. "If you tear people and drivers apart from teams year after year, you never have anything to build on."
Now, though, Park has a solid foundation with Orleans Racing.
"The last piece of the puzzle was for the guys to have confidence that I was coming back," says Park. "Nobody wanted to leave. They wanted to make sure I was going to be back, and that was going to give them the confidence that it was going to be OK."
With that, Park is off, grilled chicken and three sweet teas in hand.
"Sure you don't want anything?" he asks.