DEI Puts It All Together

In all aspects of NASCAR Winston Cup Series competition, the name of the game is capitalizing on the mistakes of others. That includes the hiring of new team members that maybe someone else let go or chose not to pick up.

In this sport, it can literally be the difference in winning and losing.

One strong case in point is Dale Earnhardt – not as a seven-time Winston Cup championship driver – but in the acquisitions he’s made as a team owner at NASCAR’s top level.

Two of the key changes that have propelled the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team towards the top have been the addition of Paul Andrews and Steve Hmiel, both veteran Winston Cup crew chiefs who found a home at DEI after being fired from the teams of Jeremy Mayfield and Mark Martin.

If there has been one winner in the whole scenario it would have to be DEI driver Steve Park. Park took full advantage of the addition of the veterans and even grabbed his first tour victory at Watkins Glen in 2000. He also rolled to a career-best 11th in the final 2000 standings.

Andrews is the crew chief for Park’s No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet, while Hmiel serves as technical director of Earnhardt’s operation that also fields cars for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip.

“It means winning races,” Park says of his team owner’s decision to hire veteran team personnel as they become available. “If I had to put my finger on the one thing that has made us what we are today, I’d have to say Paul Andrews is that thing. Dale has given us the ingredients to run good and win races. It’s like anything else, you can have all the best ingredients in the world, but if you don’t have a cook that knows how to put them together, it’s not going to turn out just right.

“Before Paul came on board as the crew chief for me, I didn’t know him from a hole in the ground. But right off the bat we just hit it off.

“You hear people talk about it, and sometimes it can make you sick, but now in racing these days everybody has the money and resources so it becomes a matter of getting the right people. Right now, Paul and me seem to be clicking. We’re on the same page and communicating real well.”

While often overlooked, Park explains the behind-the-scenes work of Hmiel on the aerodynamic front has also played a major factor in him being able to pull off the best year of his short career in Winston Cup.

“Steve has done a great job, and he always gets forgotten because he’s on the technical side,” Park says of Hmiel, who had served as crew chief for Martin in five of his six years with Roush Racing. “Steve is the guy that’s going to the wind tunnel every week and keeping the technical side of our team intact. Steve is giving us great cars, so all we have to do once we get to the track is fine-tune them a little bit. I can boldly say that if I win a lot of races and a championship, it’s going to be with Paul Andrews here at Dale Earnhardt Inc.”

Andrews won’t come straight out and say it, but prodded enough he admits to some satisfaction in the fact that Park’s team ended up 11th in the 2000 Winston Cup standings while his former team with Mayfield was 24th.

So was this – the dismissal of two experienced veterans – just a bad mistake on the part of their former bosses?

“I’d like to think so,” says Andrews, the 1992 Winston Cup Series championship crew chief for the late Alan Kulwicki. “But that’s because I’m part of the situation. Steve Hmiel and I are both people who have been in this sport for a long period of time, and we’ve seen and done a lot. There’s a lot of experience, and sometimes that experience can be hard to beat.

“I feel like that’s just another team out there. If I try to thrive and focus on beating that one team, I’m going to be beating myself. So I try and not look at it that way. I didn’t like what happened there at that particular time, but that’s in the past and it’s time to move on. I’m focusing on our situation and our goals.”

According to Park, the goals for 2001 are to keep improving with each race and find a little more consistency.

Setting new goals is something Park cherishes, as he says before last year and his first Winston Cup win, his career path was not so certain.

“I sat at last year’s Media Tour and pretty much told everybody my future was in jeopardy because I was in the last year of my contract,” Park says of the annual meet-and-greet between drivers and motorsports media held each January by Lowe’s Motor Speedway. “I just needed to do what I was paid to do, and that was to run as good as we could and try to win. I really thought anything other than meeting the goals we set for last year – to win our first race and get a pole – would have been a disappointment. We lived up to those goals with two poles and our first win, plus we just barely missed out on making the Top 10 in points.

“Everybody laughed at me and looked at me like I had two heads when I said those were lofty goals for our team at the beginning of last year. We were able to back that up with some good performances on the track. So going into this year, we’re just looking to improve. We found out how much fun it was last year and we want to win more. We’d like to be a multiple winner this year, but the main goal is finishing in the Top 10 in points and as close to the Top 5 as we can. The only way we’re going to do that is being very consistent and trying to win some races.”

Andrews says while Park’s breakout performance may have surprised some people, he knew it was only a matter of time.

“Steve proved a lot, but he was ready to prove it,” Andrews says. “It wasn’t that he didn’t have anything to prove the year before, but things just hadn’t come together for him before then. Steve didn’t do anything any different than what he’d done in the past – he just had more experience and kept getting smarter.

“I’m really looking forward to next year,” Andrews says. “We’re all fired up and he is too, and we’ve got our expectations and hopes up pretty high. We feel like we’re going to achieve a lot of the goals we have set for this year.”

For Park, there will be a next year with the No. 1 DEI team thanks to Earnhardt resigning him to a multiyear deal that runs through the end of the 2003 season.

“I have roots that run deep here,” Park says. “I’ve been with Dale since 1996 and I started driving in the Busch Series for him in 1997. Then in 1998 we went Winston Cup racing together, so we’ve spent almost five years together. I’m comfortable with the fact that I’ve been with the same company for all those years and not had to bounce around to find the right combination I needed to win.

“Dale Earnhardt has proven time and time again that he’s a winner. Even though we struggled a little bit in the past, he never lost that confidence in me in driving one of his cars and that we could be a successful team. I believe that showed early last season when we resigned for another three years together, before we won our first race at Watkins Glen.

“It showed the commitment I had to Dale Earnhardt and the commitment Dale had to me.”

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2001, Steve Park

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