No Day In The Park

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. – A.J. Foyt. Mario Andretti. Al Unser. Rick Mears. Dale Earnhardt. Jeff Gordon.

Steve Park.

Well, not quite. But, boy, was that close. Frustratingly close. Park nearly joined the list of winners at the Brickyard, but a late-race caution Sunday hit him like a ton of bricks.

“It’s gut-wrenching,” said Park, who wound up finishing seventh.

It should be. When a driver dominates a race but doesn’t win, he’s disappointed. When he dominates the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he’s crushed.

Winning the Brickyard 400 would have made Park’s career. Yes, he’s won races before. In fact, he’s headed next to Watkins Glen, where he won last year.

But winning at Indy is different. Bad drivers never win here. And when good drivers do, careers soar.

Park’s career would have risen to another level had he been able to hang on Sunday. He led three times for 39 laps – the most of any driver – and built leads of more than four seconds over the field.

But with 28 laps to go, a caution came out. Someone – certainly not Park – spotted debris on the track.

“It was the yellow Pennzoil car so far out front,” Park said.

You can forgive Park if he considered the caution to be superfluous. Park wanted to see a yellow flag about as much as he wanted to hit the wall right about then.

But there it was for everyone to see, a caution on Lap 132 of the prestigious 160-lap event. As the field bunched behind him, the wheels were spinning – in the pits. Four tires? Two tires? Pit? Not pit?

Park and crew chief Paul Andrews decided caution was the best way to play, so the Dale Earnhardt Inc. crew changed all four tires. There was only one problem. Well, seven problems.

There were seven cars in front of Park before the next restart. Sterling Marlin didn’t pit, eventual winner Jeff Gordon and four others changed only two tires, and Tony Stewart’s crew was faster than Park’s. So instead of a glorious final few laps when Park could have been basking in Brickyard 400 sunlight, Park found himself mired in traffic, trapped like a fly in a spider web.

Just like Gordon found trouble back in the back early in the race, Park did, too. He couldn’t make up any ground, even with the four fresh tires.

“What can I say?” Park said. “To be able to dominate the race and run as good as we did, and then lose it in the last 30 laps is really hard. You work all day to try to win it and then give it away at the end.”

Park was frustrated, obviously, but he refused to blame anyone.

“We don’t second-guess after the race,” Park said. “It would be easy to sit here and say, ‘This is what we should have done.’ We win races as a team and we lose races as a team… Races are sometimes won and lost in the pits, and we lost it there today. Strategy kind of hurt us and got us too far back with so few laps left in the race.”

Strategy had helped earlier in the race. After being one of the last cars to make a green-flag pit stop on Lap 64, Park stayed on the track when a yellow came out 12 laps later. He passed Stewart for the lead on Lap 80 and proceeded to run away. Park stretched it to nearly five seconds when he made another green-flag stop.

When that round of stops was over, Park again led by almost five seconds. But then came that dreaded yellow flag.

“We had a good car, and again it showed you that track position was the key,” Park said. “We needed to be up front. We needed to pit in the lead, and we needed to come out in the lead. I think we would have continued to dominate the race.”

Park was left with the consolation of leading the most laps, and he heads to Watkins Glen with confidence in his team’s on-track performance.

After a difficult summer stretch where Park finished 20th or worse five straight times – including a 40th at Sears Point and 41st at Chicago – Park’s team appears to be going in the right direction. He was sixth at New Hampshire, 13th and Pocono and then seventh at Indy. Park is 11th in the Winston Cup standings, 82 behind 10th-place Johnny Benson.

“We led a bunch of laps (at Indy), and I feel like we’re back on track,” Park said. “We’re consistently in the Top 10 again. That’s what we need to do to get back in the Top 10 in points. We’ve got a great race team.”

There’s little doubt about his team’s ability to put together a great car. You don’t lead that many laps at Indy by accident. Now, Park and his team have to prove they can make the right calls in the pits.

And he’s already looking forward to the 2002 Brickyard 400.

“Fortunately, I’m young,” Park said, “and I’ll race a lot more of these races in the years to come.”

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