Park Does It For Boss At Dura Lube

Steve Park Dura Lube 400
With tears in his eyes, Steve Park honored his late boss by driving a Dale Earnhardt car to victory Monday in the Dura Lube 400.

Park held off Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte by two car-lengths in the rain-delayed race at North Carolina Speedway.

"I'm just glad it was Bobby behind me," Park said after the second win of his career. "If it wasn't him, we'd probably both have wrecked. It's been a tough week, and this is just a dream finish."

Park, who started next to polesitter Jeff Gordon on the front row, was a contender throughout the race, which began Sunday and was postponed by rain after just 52 of the 393 laps.

It was a fitting end to a race that began with a frightening first-lap crash by Park's teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Three turns after the race started, a battered car and a hushed crowd provided a reminder of the previous week's tragedy in Daytona.

Earnhardt Jr. was tapped from behind and slammed into the wall between turns 3 and 4 at about 150 mph just seven days after his father died in an eerily similar crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

The younger Earnhardt was bruised but escaped serious injury, limping away from the accident.

"I hate it for Junior because this would have really took his mind off it for quite a while, just getting one race behind him," said Tony Eury Jr., a cousin and a member of his crew. "But when he come in the garage area, we all just grabbed him and told him, 'Don't worry about it. We always got next week."'

The 26-year-old Earnhardt, coming off the toughest week of his life, appeared to shrug off the mishap, even though it occurred on the first lap of racing since his father was killed.

"Somebody got into me," Earnhardt Jr. told his team over the radio. "I was really ready to go racing. We'll be all right, guys."

Asked if he was injured, he smiled and said, "The lap belt was a little too tight. I'm a little bruised up. I'll be OK."

Earnhardt Jr., in his second full season of driving on the Winston Cup circuit, started 25th in the 43-car field. The start of the race was delayed 1 hour, 33 minutes by rain, and later was postponeuntil Monday because of the weather.

The race resumed with the sun shining brightly but without Earnhardt Jr. The cars were restarted in single file with the Dodge of Stacy Compton in front of the Chevrolets of Gordon and Park.

Moments before he crashed, Earnhardt Jr. was in a tightly bunched pack of cars heading into the third turn on the 1.017-mile speedway. Robby Gordon swerved down the banked track in front of Earnhardt Jr., who slowed slightly. Rookie Ron Hornaday Jr. then bumped the rear of Earnhardt's Chevrolet, sending it into the car driven by Kenny Wallace and then into the concrete wall at an angle.

In all, six drivers were involved in Sunday's wreck, including Jimmy Spencer, Mike Wallace and Hut Stricklin. Only Earnhardt Jr. and Kenny Wallace were unable to return to the race.

"It was just like a traffic jam," Kenny Wallace said. "Everybody was wanting the bottom of the race track and somebody got into the back of Earnhardt and got it starting. It was a bad deal."

In the crash that killed the elder Earnhardt in the season-opening race, the seven-time champion bumped with Sterling Marlin, bounced into Kenny Schrader and hit the wall at 180 mph. Earnhardt died instantly of head injuries.

A NASCAR doctor said Earnhardt might have survived if one of his two lap belts hadn't broken. NASCAR is investigating what caused the belt to come apart.

Before Sunday's crash, tributes honored the elder Earnhardt as one of the greatest stock car racers in history.

Most of the drivers and crewmen wore black, red and silver caps with Earnhardt's No. 3 on the front. The members of the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team, which fields cars for Earnhardt Jr., Park and Daytona winner Michael Waltrip, stood on the pit wall during the national anthem holding the caps aloft in a salute to their former boss.

"There's a lot of people here wanting to honor Dale," Gordon said. "We wanted to put these hats on as a little tribute, to let him know everyone's thinking about him and wishing he was here."

Darrell Waltrip, a retired three-time champion and a longtime friend, asked the 60,000 spectators to stand for a moment of silence, then said a brief prayer.

"You wonder how can we go out and race today? We do it knowing Dale would want us to," Darrell Waltrip said.

Signs and banners honoring The Intimidator were scattered throughout the grandstands and around the speedway grounds. Many in the crowd wore hats, shirts or jackets emblazoned with the No. 3.

There wasn't much racing once the accident was cleaned up. A light rain began during that caution and kept the cars running under a yellow flag until lap 32.

Pole-winner Gordon kept the lead until lap 44, when Park moved past to a giant roar from the crowd.

Moments later, rain began again and the leaders pitted, leaving Stacy Compton out front.

But the rain that began as a sprinkle turned into a downpour that brought out a red flag. After a 20-minute wait, NASCAR postponed the rest of the race.

Joe Gibbs, who owns the cars driven by defending series champion Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart, said the postponement was tough on everybody.

"You've got to be resilient," the former Washington Redskins coach said. "You've got to be the kind of team that can bounce back, get ready to go tomorrow and, hopefully, have a good day."

Earnhardt Jr. must wait for his chance next Sunday in Las Vegas.

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