Stuck In Park

Perhaps Steve Park made a mistake. Perhaps the doctors made a mistake. Perhaps officials at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. were in the wrong.

Whoever the finger might be pointed at, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that something’s wrong in the camp of the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevy team at DEI.

Did Park get back into his racecar too quickly? Should officials at DEI demanded that Park stay out of the car a little bit – or maybe a lot – longer to get his bearings back and return to his status as one of Winston Cup’s up-and-coming superstars?

Both Park and the people at DEI, as well as his doctors, say Park was fit enough to return to action back in mid-March, when he got behind the wheel of the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevy competitively for the first time since he suffered a major head injury in an accident last September at Darlington.

Park was thoroughly tested in every way before even getting back into his car to test, making sure his reflexes were there and that nothing would hinder him on the track. He was given full medical clearance to drive by Dr. Jerry Petty and Dr. Charles Branch, as well as clearance by NASCAR.

Dr. Petty has practiced medicine for 40 years and has been part of Carolina Neurosurgery & Spine Associates, P.A., since 1968. Dr. Branch is the chairman of the department of neurosurgery at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem.

Certainly no one is questioning either one’s credentials, and Park has been able to race up to speed since returning.

But perhaps it’s Park himself that has many people shaking their heads. His speech is still slurred, and that in itself worries many of his fellow competitors and those who are watching him closely.

Perhaps Park’s psyche is working on him when he straps into his racecar, and that could be what is causing his and the team’s performance to suffer. The statistics speak for themselves:

Park has finished 20th or worse in all nine races since his return to the track at Darlington, the fifth race of the Winston Cup season. Included in that are five finishes of 34th or worse.

He’s finished in the top 25 in only three of those starts (20th at Texas, 24th at Martinsville and 22nd at California). At times since his return he’s appeared to “bump into” cars from out of the blue.

When Dale Earnhardt suffered through a spectacular crash at Talladega a few years ago that left him with a broken sternum, it appeared as if, for a while, Earnhardt became a bit more tentative on the track than he had been in the past.

And who could blame him? A crash like that might make anyone, no matter who they are, a bit more apprehensive on the track.

Fortunately for his fans and the sport, Earnhardt returned to form and provided us all with several thrills in the next couple of years before his untimely death last year at Daytona.

But, let’s get back to Park. Clearly, Park is not the driver he was before suffering the injury last year. Park proved his mettle in 2000 when he earned his first Winston Cup victory on the road course at Watkins Glen.

He then got victory number two when he held off Bobby Labonte in a thrilling finish at Rockingham last February, a week after the death of his former car owner (Earnhardt). Although the Pennzoil team showed a bit of inconsistency, it was apparent that Park and his team were going places.

That may still hold true, but with a different meaning. He may be going places, but away from DEI.

Rumors have swirled around his departure from DEI, that team officials weren’t happy with the direction the team was headed. Elliott Sadler was thrown out there as a possible replacement. Sadler’s name also came up as a possible driver next year for the No. 15 team, which rumor has it that Michael Waltrip is on his way out.

There’s been no movement yet, but from all indications, there are big changes forthcoming at DEI – and Park seems to be in the crosshairs. Considering where Park was going before the accident, that’s a shame.

Whether or not Park came back too soon, only Park can really say. One thing’s for sure, however – he’s only been a shell of his former self.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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