Park On The Road Back?

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It takes a lot longer than a week for a race team to turn around. There are too many variables to get straightened out in only seven days.

But in the period of one week, it sure looks like Steve Park’s season is at least heading in a different direction.

Last week, Park was coming off a horrific-looking wreck and a last-place finish at Pocono Raceway, and concerns were again raised about his health, about his ability. Remember, he’s not that far removed from a six-month absence while he recovered from a moderate concussion.

This week, Park is flying high after a seventh-place finish in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Instead of concerns, people may think, “He’s back.”

But to Park, who is currently working on securing a ride for 2002, last week was the big step. Sure, running well at Indy was great, but Pocono was important, too – well, until he flipped on the first lap of the race.

“This is definitely a big morale booster for the entire team,” Park said after crawling out of the car at Indy. “This Pennzoil team has been working so hard, and finally we have something to show for it.

“I feel like we really turned the corner last week. The car was running good, and it was the first time in a while I’d seen the crew walking around with their heads held up a little bit higher and a spring in their step. To end up on the roof on the first lap was a huge disappointment, especially when we were running so well.”

Park wasn’t the only one happy with his team’s performance.

“Hey! Great job for Steve,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., Park’s Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate. “That yellow team has needed and deserved a good finish for a long time and they got one today. Good for them.”

Indeed. There probably wasn’t a driver out there who needed a good finish more than Park, for he and his team have been in a horrendous slump since Park’s return. Park has not only struggled to run well, he’s struggled to finish races.

Finally, on Sunday, he ran well AND finished.

“That’s everything,” said Paul Andrews, Park’s crew chief. “It’s all about finishing these races. It’s all about finishing these races with good runs. We definitely had some good runs in the past that didn’t quite make it, but we also had just plain hell of a lot of bad runs; we just didn’t run good like we needed to. There’s been more of that than others.

“A good solid run is what Steve needed for his confidence and what everybody on this team needed.”

Since returning to Winston Cup at Darlington with a good run – but an early crash – Park has performed so poorly that Earnhardt Jr. and DEI vice president Ty Norris said publicly that Park needed to pick things up.

That was in May, and things didn’t really pick up. Before Indy, Park hadn’t finished higher than 20th. And in the 10 races before the Brickyard, his average finish was 32.5. Yuck.

Finally, though, Park did what he needed to do. He performed well, stayed out of trouble and didn’t make any mistakes.

“This team I felt last week turned a corner, and we didn’t get a chance to race the whole race; we got on our roof,” Park said. “But the same kind of deal here, we qualified good and raced good all day long. My hat’s off to this whole Pennzoil team.

“We found some things in the car (last week) that really are to my liking, and it’s totally different than what we had last year. We can’t look at last year and say, ‘Well, we finished 10th with this setup and this car, so bring it back. We know it don’t work.

“I’m real happy for this whole Pennzoil team; they worked hard for this. We all did, and it is a moral victory for all of us.”

This weekend, there’s a decent chance could post another good finish. Two years agom Park got his first Winston Cup victory at the site of Sunday’s race, Watkins Glen International.

Perhaps he and the team can prove they need to stay together.

“Well, we’re just trying to get through this year,” Andrews said. “We want to work with what we’ve got, and we’re happy to have Steve. We’d love to have him back for next year, but that’s not up to us. That’s up to Steve and DEI, and we just want to finish this year on a good note.

“We just want to get Steve back to where he was. He’s a good friend of ours and everybody on the team. We’ve been through a lot together, and we want to see him back where he needs to be.”

For the first time since his accident at Darlington last season, Park was close to where Andrews believes he should be. And it had to be a confidence booster for Park.

Instead, Park chose not to talk about himself but about his team.

“Last week at Pocono was the first time that I seen people walking around with their heads up a little bit, a little skip in their step,” Park said “We qualified good and ran good and ended up on our roof. So to come here and qualify and run so good is definitely a morale booster, not only for myself, but for the whole entire Pennzoil team.

“I’m just so happy we came out of Indy with a Top 10 that I don’t know what to say. It feels like we won the race instead of finishing seventh.”

Staff Writer Lee Montgomery can be reached at lee.montgomery@rmg3.com

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