NASCAR WCUP: Park Happy After Emotional Brickyard Rollercoaster
8 August 1999
Park Happy After Emotional Brickyard Rollercoaster Second-Year Driver Turns Near "Did Not Start" Into 15th-Place Finish You can't blame Steve Park for smiling with satisfaction and a bit of relief after posting a respectable 15th-place finish in Saturday's Brickyard 400. The checkered flag brought to an end a three-day period at Indianapolis that was as stomach churning as any Park has ever faced since he started driving cars as a youngster. In Park's dreams the 1999 Brickyard 400 would turn into a showcase of the second-year driver's abilities. Last year at Indianapolis, Park climbed back into the #1 Pennzoil Monte Carlo five months after breaking his right femur, left collarbone and right shoulder blade in an accident at Atlanta. His return to the racecar last year was a triumph but this race would be more than just a moral victory. This year the challenge wouldn't have anything to do with any off-track accomplishment, instead it would be only about how many competitors his bright-yellow car could pass in 400 miles on the famed oval. "No matter who you are or what you have ever done behind a wheel, if you win at Indy you are a hero," Park said before the weekend. This year would be his turn to be a hero. The first step toward reaching hero status is qualifying the car on Thursday. The goal was to secure a top-25 starting spot on Thursday and spend the rest of the afternoon and all day Friday working on race setups in preparation for Saturday's race. The Pennzoil team seemed in perfect position to do just that as its practice speed was about 20th fastest of the 56 cars attempting to make one of the most important races of the 1999 season. Park was the 18th car to appear on the circuit for the single-lap qualification run. After taking the green flag, and with his Dale Earnhardt Inc. crew and about 80,000 in attendance, Park barreled into the first corner. "There was just a bad push and we couldn't get it to turn," Park said later. The Pennzoil Monte Carlo slid toward the wall but fortunately didn't make contact. Park guided the car through the second corner without problems but experienced the same "push" in the third and fourth turns. Park's speed of 175.158 mph left him in 42nd place at the end of the day on Thursday. Then the news got worse. Park stood 28th in owner points and before Thursday seemed confidant, if he were unable to qualify in the top 36, he could rely on a provisional starting spot. But, three of Roush Racing's cars, Ernie Irvan, and a few others ahead of Park in the season's car owner standings also failed to make the top 36 and were going to use the seven provisional starting positions. If Park didn't make the top 36 when the cars were allowed to requalify in Friday then Park and his Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammates would not be in the Pennzoil-sponsored Brickyard 400. That is about as pressured-filled as it gets. "This is a tough business as we are finding out right now, but we aren't going to give up," Park said. "We have another chance and we have to do everything we can to make the most of it." Friday morning's practice proceeded well as Park posted a 178-mph lap - the quickest of all the cars at Indianapolis. However everyone knew the cooler temperatures of the early morning hours would dissipate when second round qualifying started at 12:30 p.m. When the practice session ended, the Pennzoil crew prepped the car for qualifying and waited in silence while the driver sat alone contemplating that one lap that would decide if he was going to participate in the 1999 Brickyard 400. With the track growing hotter by the minute slowing the speeds, qualifying began with more than 100,000 spectators and a national television audience watching. ESPN made Park's drama its lead story and interviewed the New York native about this struggle to beat the odds of making the race. As the dozen or so cars that chose to requalify began their runs, Park saw that the speed to beat would be about 176.433 mph. He climbed into the car, put on his helmet and set out on the most important lap of his life. As he entered the treacherous first corner the Pennzoil car made a big wiggle and the young driver did everything he could to hang on. "I knew that first turn was going to be the toughest but there was no way I was going to lift off the accelerator," Park said. "We were going to make this race or not make this lap." Turns three and four were much smoother and as he came down for the checkered flag the team, the crowd, the national television audience held its breath before public address announcer Tom Carnegie announced a speed of 176.744 mph - good enough to make the race in the 32nd starting spot. "That was a big relief," said a near giddy Park just after he climbed from the car and bowed to the applause of fans. "We weren't going to miss this race. I hope we never have to go through something like that again." Amid hugs and handshakes the 31-year-old now only had to worry about getting ready for the Brickyard 400. "We have to put all that qualifying stuff behind us now. We are in and that's all that matters," said crew chief Paul Andrews "We have as good of a shot at this race as anybody." Park practiced in race trim on Friday afternoon posting a top practice speed good enough for the top 20. He knew the race would be tough because passing is difficult on the narrow flat track. It was evident soon after the green flag fell that Park was one of the fastest cars on the track. The bright yellow car climbed from the 32nd starting position up to 17th in just 35 laps on the 2.5-mile track. By lap 74 he was running in 16th place. "The car feels pretty good," said Park. "It's a little tight (hard to turn) but we are going to be all right." In racing, when you are running pretty well, but not good enough to beat the leaders outright then you have to gamble a little if you hope to visit Victory Lane. Andrews knew Park was pretty good, but a little roll of the dice with the fuel strategy might just allow the Pennzoil team to steal a victory. The team started stretching fuel mileage a little each time during the race and in the final stages during a long green run Park stayed on the track pitting on lap 138 of the 160-lap race. The strategy allowed Park to go to the end of the race without another pit stop while most of the cars ahead of Park would have to come in for a quick gas and go in the final laps. "You don't worry about fuel, you can go all the way," Andrews told Park. As the laps wound down the near disastrous week seemed to be turning into a dream week as crewmembers figured what looked like a "did not start" on Thursday was about to become a top five finish on Saturday. The laps kept winding down and the Pennzoil team crossed their fingers even more hoping there would be no caution that would allow the leaders a chance to top off their fuel tanks. But, sometimes luck doesn't work and with 15 laps left in the race Dave Marcis's engine exploded on the front stretch bringing out the caution. As the field came down for the final pit stop, Andrews and about half the front runners gambled again calling for a two-tire stop. This allowed Park to return to the track in 11th place when the race resumed with 11 laps remaining. The cars with four new tires were able to get by Park in the closing laps and a final corner near melee required a skillful save by Park to preserve the 15th place finish bringing to an end a weekend like few have ever experienced. "I've watched the Indianapolis 500 on television and saw all the emotion those guys go through to make the field and do well in the race and after what we have been through this week I can relate to them a whole lot better," said Park. "This place is pretty amazing." Dale Jarrett dominated the race and was followed across the start/finish line by Bobby Labonte. Park and his teammates return to action on the roadcourse in Watkins Glen N.Y. next weekend.