Park Is In Overdrive

The 2000 Winston Cup season has seen driver Steve Park and veteran crew chief Paul Andrews come into their own as a racing combination. They’ve become a threat to win just about every single week.

In fact, the entire Dale Earnhardt Inc. operation is now looked upon as a team to beat on any given Sunday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his father his first Winston Cup victory as an owner earlier in the season at Texas, followed by Park and Andrews making both teams winners when Park scored his first career win at Watkins Glen.

On Friday, Park showed his team’s strength again by winning the pole – with a new track record - for Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With the race being sponsored by his car’s primary sponsor, the pressure was on Park for a solid performance… and he came through.

“We'd really love to give Pennzoil another victory, and doing so during this race at Homestead would make it even more special," said Park, who is coming off a career-best finish of third at Phoenix. "They’ve been through so much as a sponsor and have been very patient and supportive throughout my tenure with them. This Pennzoil team has proven that they are winners and, with the confidence we have built, it's a real possibility for us to take this thing on Sunday.”

Park isn’t just being politically correct in his appreciation for his sponsor, team and owner, who stuck through the thick and thin with him during his first two years at NASCAR’s top level. With two races to go, Park stands a solid 11th in the Winston Cup points standings.

Park says he’d like to take all the credit, but he’ll have to give most of it to Andrews, who has helped three drivers - Park, Jeremy Mayfield and the late Alan Kulwicki - to their first Winston Cup wins.

“Last year, Paul Andrews came on board about halfway through the season,” Park explains. “The year before that, I got hurt and missed three-quarters of the season. We've had these part seasons that have added up to a little bit of experience, but this year has really been our first full year as a team, as a solid race team with Paul being there, with me gaining some experience over the past two years. The engine shop has been in development stage, and that's getting where it needs to be. They're building great cars. We have all the ingredients now.

"We have all the key people in place. We're just becoming a well-rounded team, so it not only makes me excited about this year, how well we've run these past six months, but just think about next year."

Andrews says it’s meant a lot to him to be able to take an unproven team like this and turn it into a winner.

"It's real special, real rewarding," Andrews says. "It's a neat feeling to run like we've been running. It's a lot of fun taking something from a point - or even from nothing like we did Alan's deal- to something special. We did a lot of building there as far as with people and buildings and everything else. That's a lot of fun. It's very rewarding.

“This was a different situation, but there was a lot of struggling going on here. I'm excited about what we've accomplished here too.”

But one thing both Andrews and Park are fully aware of is the fact they must improve upon their trip to Miami last year when the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet qualified 22nd and finished 19th. They’ve done half of that by winning the pole, and expect to improve on the race result, as well.

"We were terrible at Homestead last year,” Andrews remembers. “All the Monte Carlos were pretty far off, and we didn't have a good package.”

With that the case, Park and Andrews, along with a ton of other teams, went to Homestead and tested in hopes of getting a better handle on their car for Sunday’s 267-lap race.

"We tested at Homestead, but I think about half the teams on the circuit were there testing,” Andrews said. "We saved one test for the end of the year, and we were either going to Homestead or Atlanta. I think the Homestead test might have helped us at Phoenix last week. There's a half-mile difference in the size of the tracks, but they're both flat.

“We worked in qualifying trim the first day and stayed in race trim the second day. We were happy with both ends of the test. We weren't the fastest car there, but we had a good car and we were happy with the total package.”

More often than not this year, Park has been showing the results that led Earnhardt to move him to a DEI-owned Busch Series ride up into Winston Cup. He has, without question, been one of the most pleasing stories of the year to date.

"Steve has really come a long way this season,” Andrews says. “In fact, the whole team has come a long way. They've seemed to develop a personality together. If you look at the end of the races at Dover and Rockingham, he was picking up three or four spots at the end of the race.

"He's really learned how to save equipment, and that's been real impressive to me. He's learned how to manage the tires, and Darlington was a good example of that. He really saved the equipment there."

With that in mind, Andrews says he doesn’t see why the team can’t knock off another win or maybe even two, before the year is out. As far as wanting to move ahead into the final Top 10, Andrews says that might be asking a little too much at this point.

"We're 11th in the points right now, and I'd say Earnhardt has a better chance of winning the championship than we do of finishing in the Top 10,” Andrews explains. “We’d have to win the last two races and Ward Burton (in 10th) would have to finish 35th or worse in both races. I'd say it's pretty much out of reach. On the other hand, if we run badly, we could easily slide back to 12th.

“So our goal for the final two races will be to maintain 11th position in the points, but our biggest priority is running good. If we could win one of the last two, that would be icing on the cake.”

After a rough first couple of years in Winston Cup, that’s all Park is asking for.

"It's amazing what a win can do for you. If you think about it, it's really where a lot of things started,” Park says. “In this sport, everybody has great sponsors and have great equipment. I think it's the people that really make the difference.

“We were struggling on our pit stops and we finally got rid of a few guys and got a few new guys and they just jelled with the whole team. Then we went and won the race at Watkins Glen, and not only did I prove to myself that I could win in Winston Cup, but I think the whole team proved to a lot of people they could win in Winston Cup.

"I told them at the end of that race that we're no longer competitors any more, we're all winners and there's not a lot of people that can say that. We've got a real solid race team. So we just need to keep our guys happy and keep running well like we are and keep this deal together… because it's a winner."

Second round Winston Cup qualifying Saturday morning didn't produce a lot of surprises other than Andy Houston made his way into the race.

"We were in a pretty deep hole, and I didn't think we were going to be able to climb out of it," Houston said. "The track didn't have the time in it today like it did on Friday, especially with all the rubber that put down with Busch happy hour and Winston Cup practice in the morning. We got a good set of tires and the car worked well. It was a perfect lap, or at least good enough to get us in the show."

Houston turned in a second round qualifying lap of 154.061 mph and will start 29th Sunday.

Eight drivers - Kyle Petty, Hut Stricklin, Ricky Craven, Dave Marcis, Steve Grissom, Norm Benning, Hermie Sadler and Ted Musgrave - failed to qualify. It marks the first time that Musgrave has missed a race since he took over the ride after the death of Kenny Irwin back in July.

Provisionals were awarded to, in order from 37th to 43rd starting position: Dale Earnhardt, Matt Kenseth, Terry Labonte, Michael Waltrip, Kenny Wallace and Bobby Hamilton.

Sunday's race will be televised live at 12:30 p.m. EST on NBC.

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