Steve Park: For the love of the game

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It's been a decade since Steve Park last competed regularly in the Sprint Cup Series in a career that spanned two victories and seven seasons. But that career was cut short due to injuries sustained in Pocono at 2002 and Park has been trying to find his way back ever since.

But the fan-favorite Park hasn't given up and notched a major accomplishment off his checklist, finally winning at Daytona International Speedway in the Modified Series race in the Battle at the Beach on Tuesday night.

Park still hasn't given up on a full-time NASCAR return, possibly in the Camping World Truck Series, saying that he still has at least five more competitive seasons in him if he can just secure proper funding. He’s hopeful, saying that he’s close to running at least five races this season and could start a few more Modified races after his success at Daytona.

In short, Park hasn't lost his fire or competitive drive - not even close.

“Racing is my motivation now,” Park told SB Nation on Tuesday. “You know, we've come to Daytona 16 times and never left here with a trophy. I've had a career that spans from Modifieds to Busch North, Sprint Cup to you name it. But it's all about winning.

“I am not going to be happy just going out there and running in mid-pack. That comes down to having good equipment and putting yourself in the right position. Until the right sponsors come along, we're going to put ourselves in the right position and do these one-off races and do exactly what we did on Tuesday night, which is win. We're having a ball, winning these races.”

Some fans will best remember Steve Park as the driver of the no. 1 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Inc. from 1998-2003. His competitive career was ultimately derailed at Pocono Speedway in 2002, when an accident involving Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt Jr. sent his car head first into the track’s antiquated inside retaining wall.

The accident began when Wallace hit the wall after leaving the first turn of the triangular track. Park slowed to avoid contact, but got sideways and was hit hard by Earnhardt. Park’s Chevrolet was pushed across the grass by Earnhardt’s and hit the steel wall, crumpling the chassis and flipping the car twice. It took track workers several minutes to free Park from the car.

Park was released from the infield care center within an hour but it took several years to truly understand the damage that had been done to Park’s body.

The accident came just 11 months after another violent crash, in the Nationwide Series at Darlington, concussed him and combined with the later Pocono accident, led to Park’s exit from the Sprint Cup Series by 2005.

Park doesn’t like to talk about the accidents that left him out of the sport he loves but he lights up when talking about the man who gave him his major break in the Sprint Cup Series – Dale Earnhardt Sr. It’s for that reason, it was most important that he finally captured a victory at the World Center of Speed.

When it appeared as if Park had driven his last NASCAR Truck Series race in 2010, Park thought the chance to win at Daytona disappeared with it. But the Battle at the Beach allowed the 17-year Modified Series veteran to finally chase that elusive victory and he capitalized on Tuesday night.

“To come out of Daytona with a trophy is pretty unique,” Park said. “That’s why this NASCAR Home Tracks deal is cool. Kids who aspire to move up to Sprint Cup can come to Daytona and race and win a trophy. And then you have a guy like me, who thought I may not get the chance to race here anymore, to come to this place and get a win is just really special.”

After all that's happened to Steve Park, it's easy to dismiss him as a part of NASCAR's recent past. But his breakthrough at the NASCAR Battle was a reminder to not count him out because he still has something to offer to the sport's future.

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