DALE EARNHARDT: 20 years ago, Steve Park carried the Earnhardt flag to Victory Lane

The Daytona Beach News-Journal

This Ken Willis column was written on Feb. 26, 2001, after Dale Earnhardt Inc. sent Steve Park to Victory Lane at a rain-delayed Cup Series race in Rockingham, N.C.

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. — Tens of thousands of race fans pack stands week after week to watch NASCAR racing. Millions more watch from home.

Before Monday, never in NASCAR history have so many people unleashed their devotion and full-throated rooting interest on a corporation. Sure, the final results list Steve Park as the winner of the disjointed and emotion-packed Dura-Lube 400 at Rockingham, but never before has talk of this being a "team sport" seemed so appropriate.

From left: DEI drivers Steve Park, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip, prior to the 2001 Dura-Lube 400 at Rockingham.

The day belonged to Dale Earnhardt Inc., the flowering race team charged with carrying on the owner's name, as well as the owner's ambition.

"It was his vision, and all he wanted us to do was execute it," Ty Norris, general manager of DEI, said of Earnhardt. "Dale's not here, but the people he put in place are here, and we will not let this organization fall."

More:Dale Earnhardt was destined for greatness, beginning in Kannapolis

They're a long way from falling. In fact, they're just hitting full stride, having won last week's Daytona 500 with Michael Waltrip and now the season's second race with Park.

"I think the only concern he had was with Michael and his new team," Park said of Earnhardt's preseason outlook. "But he told Michael he needed to go win. When you're associated with Dale Earnhardt, it's not about running second. You don't get a pat on the back for running second. It's a tough way to learn."

Steve Park carried the Earnhardt flag to Victory Lane at Rockingham in February, 2001.

Many emotions have been exhausted during the past week. Following the death, there was the disbelief, followed by the private family funeral, the memorial, then a short trip east to Rockingham for a go-through-the-motions weekend that was cruelly dragged out an extra day by Sunday rain.

When Park, slipping and sliding around The Rock's high-banked mile over the closing laps, managed to withstand Bobby Labonte's spirited charge, a reserve tank of tears was found.

On the cool-down lap, Park found himself side by side on the backstretch with Labonte. When he looked over, he saw that Labonte was holding a black No. 3 hat out of his window.

"... I just busted out in tears," Park said. "Then I grabbed my hat."

After he came around and crossed the start-finish line, Park spun his car on the frontstretch and began a clockwise victory lap — the "Polish Victory Lap" made famous by Alan Kulwicki. Waltrip's car was the only other one on the track now, and Waltrip approached his victorious teammate in front of the main stands with his own No. 3 hat extended out the window.

Richard Childress Racing carried on, but put Kevin Harvick in the cockpit of Earnhardt's old cars, and subbed the No. 29 on the doors.

"I almost ran into Michael Waltrip, I had so many tears in my eyes," Park said.

Victory Lane itself was no less emotional, as Park took a call from Teresa Earnhardt, who was at the DEI shop in Mooresville, watching the finish of the race with shop crewmen who counted Monday as just another work day.

"She's been incredibly strong over these last few days," Park said.

Everyone involved has found strength they might not have known they owned. Especially the drivers, who amazed us yet again with their ability to climb in a potential coffin and aim it around a ribbon of asphalt surrounded by concrete.

They wear their inherent bravery with such nonchalance, we hardly give it a second glance. But when Dale Earnhardt died, not one soul could be found who still harbored an illusion of immortality. If these things can kill Dale Earnhardt, by God, they can kill anybody.

So, much of the extended Rockingham weekend was spent talking about safety. At least one driver, Todd Bodine, went public with his idea of a driver-driven safety panel.

NASCAR president Mike Helton read the comments in the local papers, or maybe was just told about them, and had a talk with Bodine the following morning. Bodine was reminded of NASCAR's open-door policy when it comes to issues of safety. When he met reporters Saturday following his Busch Series win here, he tweaked his message, and it sounded more in lockstep with what everybody else was saying.

Fox released its overnight TV ratings from Sunday's rain-interrupted coverage — a 7.0 rating and 15 share, tops for sports on the weekend and better than three of the past seven Daytona 500s.

Death may not sell, but the threat of it apparently does. Eventually, assuming things run smoothly during the coming weeks and months, those rubber-necking casual observers will move along and Fox's numbers will level off.

But anyone who thinks NASCAR will ever be quite the same is wrong. Dead wrong.

— Reach Ken Willis at ken.willis@news-jrnl.com