Park's Vegas Weekend Part of New Team Growing Pains
1 March 1998When Pennzoil, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Steve Park announced the formation of a new, full-time NASCAR Winston Cup team at Darlington in September nearly everyone asked about the difficulty of making the fields in the first four races of the 1998 Winston Cup season.
About 50 cars were expected to compete for only 43 starting spots each week and no new team could rely on provisonals that would allow it in the field whenever it didn't qualify in the top 36 positions. Add to that the time it takes for a rookie driver to learn the new tracks and the heavier cars in auto racing's most competitive series and you had the ingredients of some stressful early season qualifying sessions.
"I know what we are about to do is going to be tough," said Park when asked about the potential difficulties. "But, we will do our best and see what happens. Nobody is going to try or work harder than any of us. We are a new team and therefore at a disadvantage, but you have to start somewhere."
For Park that stress started in Daytona where a second round gamble in qualifying paid dividends and ultimately allowed him in the field. A good qualifying performance at Rockingham ensured a start. A mid-race accident caused by another driver created the problems that were to continue to plague Park when NASCAR Winston Cup cars visited Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the first time.
"We crashed the car in Rockingham that we wanted to bring to Vegas," Park said. "That really set us back. We didn't have a test out here either so we knew going into this weekend it was going to be pretty tough."
Park started the week in fine form posting a top 25 speed in a 4-hour practice on Thursday. After an engine change on Friday the Pennzoil team thought it added horsepower, but changing track conditions and quicker lap times by other teams growing familiar with the track saw Park slide down the time chart.
"The motor felt better, but we went slower," Park reported. "We are also trying to improve the balance in the car."
On Friday, Park's qualifying run left him in 45th-place. With only a 90-minute practice session left before second round qualifying on Saturday, Park's chances seemed slim. The team completed a frantic engine change just before sending the rookie onto the track for second round qualifying.
But, second round speeds indicated the track conditions slowed dramatically and Park managed the 43rd quickest time. All rookies seemed to struggle at the flat, fast track. Kevin LePage was the quickest rookie in 35th while rookie contenders Kenny Irwin and Jerry Nadeau finished 44th and 41st. Irwin because his team had provisonals based on last year's standings raced on Saturday while Nadeau was not because his new team had no provisonals.
For the Pennzoil crew, failure to qualify meant packing up and returning to Charlotte to prepare for Atlanta on Sunday. Park stayed to Las Vegas to greet Pennzoil employees and customers attending the race then returned to Charlotte.
All agreed the weekend is part of the growing pains of a new team.
"Man this hurts no doubt, but this isn't the end of the world," Park told television reporters after qualifying. "We knew this could happen, but we have good people here who work hard and we will overcome this. We had a great test session in Atlanta so we are going to go there and qualifying at the front of the field."