Big Wreck At Daytona Drops Park to 34th Place In Great American Race

15 February 1999

Because of the close competition as well as some of the most spectacular
accidents ever witnessed on the 2.5-mile, high-banked oval of Daytona
International Speedway, race historians will long remember the two weeks
that marked the 1999 Speedweeks.

 An ARCA car careening into the rear of a pace car last week, Daytona Dash
cars bringing out three red flags during a Thursday race that included
violent flips and head-on collisions were nearly equaled in Busch Series
crashes on Saturday.

Observers were leery that the Winston Cup cars that had gone all week long
without any major accidents could continue their unblemished record. Only
500 miles and the biggest purse in stock car racing stood between an almost
accident-free Speedweeks for the Winston Cup cars and potential disaster.  

Most believed something was bound to happen on Sunday and all blamed their
pessimism on the restrictor plates that bunch the cars in a high-speed
cluster where just a slight mistake might eliminate half the 43-car field
and turn the work product of thousands of man hours into a cluster of
worthless sheet metal. 

Pennzoil Monte Carlo driver Steve Park's crew knew this the day it landed in
Daytona and for the next 13 days they knew the threat of a multi-car wreck
loomed large in the race.

"Man it can all go away in a hurry at this place," one crew member exclaimed
earlier in the week. 

But they were optimistic as well. Their second-year driver used a charge
from the back of the field to qualify for the Great American Race on
Thursday and he hoped to capitalize on the momentum. A fast car in final
practice on Saturday gave everyone a sense of excitement as Park showed he
could rely on his Dale Earnhardt Inc. engine to power him past his
competitors.

Crew chief Philippe Lopez gathered the team 90 minutes before the start of
the race on Sunday for a last strategy meeting. In addition to outlining
plans for race, Lopez summarized what most other crew chiefs were telling
their teams in similar meetings throughout the garage.

"God willing if we miss the wreck then we will be good," Lopez said. "That's
what today is all about. Missing the big wreck."

With the ominous warning, the crew went out on pit lane and the 1999 Daytona
500 began. Like all storms it started out slowly but soon turned into a
whirlwind. As expected, the entire field bunched together separated by less
than two seconds as they ran sometimes two and three abreast through the
tri-oval and into the 31-degree banked corners.

Park didn't stray far from is 23rd starting spot and he held his line and
bided his time knowing the need to make sure he was in the right place at
the right time when the track turned dangerous. 

The Winston Cup drivers showed the 165,000 spectators and the national
television audience why they are at the top of their profession as they
drove the first 60 laps without a caution. Some fans might have been lulled
into the belief that maybe this race could go caution free.

Park's first pit stop on lap 56 took a bit longer than normal as the crew
pushed the Pennzoil car back in the box after he overshot the pit
boundaries. Seconds later the crew reported that a flat tire on the right
front of the car the likely culprit for the poor handling.

But the time in the pits dropped Park off the main draft and, running with
only one or two slow cars, he struggled to turn fast laps. The leaders kept
gaining and gaining and slowly approached the back of the Pennzoil car.
Falling a lap down at Daytona is a sure guarantee of a poor finish but
remaining on the lead lap kept hope alive. 

Park jumped in front of Jeff Burton as the leaders were less than a second
behind the pair. Then leader Rusty Wallace pulled up side-by-side with
Burton.

"Keep driving hard Steve, we can still get a caution because there is a car
slow on the backstretch," said Ty Norris, Park's spotter sitting high atop
the track as an extra set of eyes to help Park negotiate the treacherous
track. 

Just as Wallace pulled up to the bumper of Park's bright yellow Monte Carlo
the caution flew because of debris from Kenny Wallace's rapidly slowing car.
Park beat the leader Rusty Wallace in a drag race to the flag and remained
on the lead lap by as close a margin as he would ever dare to imagine.
Burton, just a few car lengths back, lost the lap he would never make up.

"OK that is the break we needed today," Lopez said over the radio as Park
pitted near the halfway mark. "Let's bring the car in and get you better."

The team did just that and when the green flag flew again Park was at the
tail end of the field, but he was still on the lead lap and ready to climb
through the field. But as the lap cars diced with the leaders and cars ran
two and three abreast Park learned a valuable lesson. One driver, who said
he would follow him in the draft, went the other way hanging Park out of the
draft and dropping him off the lead pack.

"I can't believe he did that," said Norris. "Hang in there we will get a
chance to get back up there and hang him out like he just did us."

Park fell off the leaders' draft and struggled with a few others cars lined
up in a slow draft hoping to avoid going down a lap. With the leaders only a
few seconds behind Park's draft, the second reprieve of the day came when
Jimmy Spencer hit the wall in a minor single car accident that brought out
only the second caution.

"We are going to change the track bar and tighten you up a bit," said Lopez
over the radio in an effort to help the Pennzoil Monte Carlo from spinning
out in the corners as Park reported the car wanted to do. 

Park brought the Pennzoil Monte Carlo to pit row and back on the track ready
now to climb through the field once again. When the green flag flew Park
passed a few cars and appeared headed to the front as he ran about 25th.
Finally, the world would get to see what Park and his teammates had for
Daytona. 

Then at lap 135 of the 200-lap race everything that everyone had feared
every day at Daytona came to pass as Lopez's pre-race premonition became a
racing reality. Teammates Kenny Irwin and Dale Jarrett touched at 190 mph in
the fourth corner and Jarrett slid down the banking and onto the apron
before careening back up in front of the pack prompting a 13-car melee of
smoke and crunching metal. 

"Slow down, brake, brake, brake," screamed Norris. "You've got it made,
you've got it made."

Then Norris let out a groan and the satellite dish broadcast pictures to the
pit crew showing them that they had fallen victim to the big wreck.  Amid
the smoke, cars drove into Park mangling what was once a pristine race car
that crew members spent the Winter building, testing, and for 13 days in
Daytona tweaking.

Park slammed into the wrecking cars and more wrecking cars slammed into
Park. Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, Sterling Marlin, Joe Nemecheck and Jarrett
were just a few of the names whose chance for a 1999 Daytona 500 victory
evaporated in a third turn accident that was no fault of their own.

"Guys we are done. Steve can you hear me?" asked Norris as the smoke
cleared.

Park had climbed from the car already and visited the infield car center
where he and all the other drivers involved in the wreck were quickly
released and returned to the garage.

"There really wasn't much we could do," said Park in the garage. "When you
are going that fast and there are that many cars there really wasn't
anywhere to go. It's a shame because we had overcome a lot of things earlier
in the race and I think we were just getting ready to start making our
move."

The crew worked to patch the Pennzoil Monte Carlo and with less than 15 laps
left in the race, Park returned to the track and made some slow laps at the
bottom to gain two or three positions over the cars unable to return to the
track. 

NASCAR black-flagged Park because he couldn't maintain the minimum speed and
the Pennzoil car returned to the garage in 34th place. Park climbed out in
time to watch the television broadcast of the race as his team owner Dale
Earnhardt almost pass race winner Jeff Gordon on the final lap in one of the
more exciting Daytona 500s.

With that the 13 days of hard work at Daytona ended and the team packed its
hauler to return to North Carolina. The Winston Cup cars didn't make it
through Speedweeks unblemished and as luck would have it the Pennzoil Monte
Carlo didn't make it through the big wreck.

"There's not much you can say other than it's on to Rockingham," Park said.
"There are 32 more races this year."

###

 

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