Park Earns 23rd Starting Spot in Great American Race

11 February 1999


When the green flag dropped Thursday for the first of the two qualifying
races at Daytona International Speedway, Steve Park's Pennzoil team stood
silently in the pits with their fingers crossed and their hearts turning
over faster than their car's Chevrolet engine.

This might be the most important day of the NASCAR Winston Cup season. 

The race determined who would comprise Sunday's Daytona 500. A finish in the
top 15 of the qualifying race and you are guaranteed a starting spot.
Anything less means you rely on a single lap qualifying speed posted last
week or a provisional starting spot based on last year's point standings. In
short, Park had to take the Pennzoil Monte Carlo from the back of the 30-car
field and up to the front or he would watch the most important race of the
season on television.

"Yeah, you could say this is a little nerve-wracking today," said Park
before the race. Because the team requalified, Park would have to fight his
way through the field to secure the starting spot. "We have a lot of cars to
get past but I think we can do it. It could get a little scary though."

If nearly sixty competitors isn't enough to make life difficult at Daytona,
Mother Nature threw a curveball to the crews when dense fog prohibited all
incoming air traffic to local airports early Thursday morning. The 11-member
Pennzoil road crew left Charlotte at 5 a.m. and made the two-hour journey to
Daytona with little trouble but air traffic control refused any landings
while the fog clung to the ground. After circling for almost three hours the
Dale Earnhardt Inc. team plane made its decent and the crew scrambled to the
race track to set up the pits barely in time for the 12:30 p.m. start.

"I thought some of us were going to have to start practicing changing tires
and jacking the car up," said Crew Chief Philippe Lopez. "We were getting a
little worried we would have a pit crew."

The crew managed to take care of all its responsibilities and as the hot
Florida sun burned the fog off the track, the 150,000 fans turned their
attention to racing. Drivers attended the mid-morning drivers meeting where
NASCAR officials warned competitors not try to do too much behind the wheel
of a car. The high speeds and close quarters of the cars make the difference
between success and disaster at Daytona miniscule. Some near wrecks in
practice made most observers wary of the qualifying races.

"We just have to be patient and run our race and not get caught up in anyone
else's mistakes," Lopez told the crew at the pre-race meeting. "If we can
avoid trouble and get to the end our car is good enough to finish well."

The 50-lap race meant teams wouldn't have to bother with a fuel stop and
Lopez said unless something unusual happened there would be no tire stops. 

It was now all up to Park.

The second year driver strapped into his car. He knew last year's season was
a near write-off when an accident at Atlanta sidelined the East Northport,
N.Y. driver for 15 races as he recovered from a broken leg, shoulder blade
and collarbone. He wasn't about to let the 1999 season get off on the wrong
foot.

After the prayer and national anthem the engines fired and the cars pulled
out on the speedway making the pace laps. The green flag dropped and the
cars raced passed the starting line side by side ready for the 50 laps to
determine the field for the Daytona 500.

It didn't take long for trouble.

"Get down low, get down low," screamed the spotter Ty Norris within seconds
of the green flag. Before the field could even make the first corner Kenny
Wallace and Wally Dallenbach along with three other cars in front of Park
began spinning wildly. With Norris' help Park drove through the white smoke
and avoided the melee. It was near disaster but when the smoke cleared he
had moved up to 20th place on just the first lap. 

"That was pretty close," said Norris. "You did a good job getting through
that. Hang on this is going to get interesting."

The race resumed and Park teamed up with Ted Musgrave in a draft that
allowed the pair to race past two more cars. By the 11th lap Park climbed up
to tenth place still racing to the front but that's when Daytona's fickle
nature showed. At this superspeedway, if you don't have a partner following
on your bumper you drop to the back of the field because two cars
nose-to-tail are always faster than a single car.

Park fell to 15th when other drafted past and he hovered there for the next
several laps. That was the transfer spot. If he could hang on to 15th place
he would be in the Daytona 500. Park did more than just hold the position
and on lap 30 he resumed his climb drafting up three spaces to 12th as the
pit crew started counting the laps down until the finish. At lap 34 Park
moved into 10th and a few of the fingers in the Pennzoil pit uncrossed and a
few of the heart beats slowed.

"Now we just have to hang on and not get out of the draft," said one crew
member. "We really don't need any cautions."

He got his wish.

For the rest of the race there were no cautions and Park, like others in the
race, ran single file sometimes pulling out of the draft to pass and
sometimes watching others draft past him. But the 15th place car was seconds
behind and never posed a threat. When the checkered flag finally flew Park
came across the finish line in 12th place trailing race winner Bobby Labonte
by two seconds and ahead of the final transfer position by 18 seconds. 

"We are in the race," said Norris as Park crossed the finish line.

It might not be as gratifying as a win but to a second-year team making the
sport's biggest event is always just cause to celebrate.

"We did what we had to do today so we are happy," Park told interviewers
after climbing from the Pennzoil Monte Carlo. "The car was pretty good. Not
perfect but pretty good. We are happy to have that behind us. It was a
relief."

The 12th place finish means Park will start Sunday's race in 23rd position
in the 43-car field.

The Pennzoil team now goes back to practicing on Friday and Saturday with
emphasis on working to improve the race setup and making the car better in
the draft. No doubt getting some advice from team owner Dale Earnhardt who
won the second qualifying race on Thursday marking for an Earnhardt sweep of
every qualifying race he entered in the 1990s. 

Then on Sunday morning the whole process begins again. The race day race
crew will leave Charlotte, maybe a little earlier, and when the engines rev
and the pace laps begin the fingers of the pit crew will cross, maybe a
little tighter, and the heartbeats will jump like the rhythm of the engines,
maybe even a little faster, and the green flag will drop for the Great
American race. 

A race that will include Steve Park.

###

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