Track workers in orange suits pulled Steve Park from the crumpled carcass of his yellow Chevrolet today after he crashed into a wall on the first lap of the Pennsylvania 500. His teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., arrived at the accident scene, and they locked arms and walked away together. Fans in the grandstand roared as they watched the two drivers on television screens.
Bill Elliott won the shortened and twice-delayed Pennsylvania 500 today more than six and a half hours after it started, but Park had supplied the most dramatic moment of the day simply by getting out of his car.
Park spent extra time in the infield care center at Pocono International Raceway because he had sustained a head injury in a crash in September, and track officials wanted to make sure he was fine.
”I just don’t like the fact I was trapped,” Park said.
What followed seemed anticlimactic in comparison. Elliott, who won the pole position Friday for the second straight Winston Cup race, swept past Sterling Marlin on the 147th of 175 laps and won his first race of the season by 1.7 seconds over Kurt Busch.
”It takes its toll on you,” Elliott, 46, said of the long day. ”I’m not getting any younger, and every second was counting on my clock.”
Earnhardt and Park drive for a team founded by Earnhardt’s father, Dale Sr., who died in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Although the cars were not traveling as fast today, Park’s accident looked much worse than the one that killed Earnhardt.
The front and back of Park’s car were in ruins, but the area around the driver’s seat was relatively undamaged. Park, like all other Nascar drivers in the aftermath of Earnhardt’s death, had worn a head-and-neck safety restraint.
Park, 34, wanted to assure his parents, Bob and Dorothy, who were watching at home, that nothing was wrong. ”All they do is worry about me,” he said.
No more than 20 seconds into the race, Rusty Wallace appeared to cut off Park as the pack of cars entered the second turn of the two-and-a-half-mile tri-oval. Wallace’s car struck the outside wall.
”I don’t know what happened, to tell you the truth,” Wallace said. ”I went into the wall, and that was it.”
Jimmie Johnson, running next to Wallace at the time of the accident, said, ”It’s kind of weird when you’re running along at 200 miles an hour and the guy beside you disappears.”
Park spun into the red Chevrolet driven by Earnhardt. Their cars slid together across the infield grass, which had been made slick by a morning shower, and Park’s slammed into an inside guardrail.
Park’s car shredded the steel guardrail and disintegrated as it began to flip. The car rolled once, then landed on its roof. The crowd hushed as Earnhardt climbed out of his car and sprinted with his helmet on toward the wreckage of Park’s car.
”There was really nothing I could do on that wet grass,” Earnhardt said. ”I knew it was going to be a bad wreck once he got into the guardrail.”
Track workers took several anxious seconds to reach Park’s car; he was trapped upside down. Earnhardt followed.
”Dale Jr. was definitely a welcome sight,” Park said, ”and I was glad he was O.K., too.”
Park, a Long Island native, said it appeared as if Wallace’s spotter had told him he was going to be passed on the outside. Wallace said the wreck was not the spotter’s fault.
”You can’t really rely on your spotter,” Wallace said of driving at Pocono, which has a front straightaway that is three quarters of a mile long. ”You’re supposed to drive the race car yourself.”
The race was stopped for 65 minutes as crews repaired the splintered guardrail. Earnhardt’s car was towed back to his garage, and his crew repaired it. Just as Earnhardt pulled onto the track, rain fell again.
The race was stopped for 2 hours 2 minutes, with the leaders on the 27th of 200 scheduled laps. Marlin took the lead on the 39th lap and gave it up only when he had to make pit stops.
About the 120th lap, Nascar officials announced that the race would be cut to 175 laps because of darkness and gathering storm clouds. Elliott beat sunset at the unlighted track by 39 minutes.
”I’m just glad we’re out of here and we can go to the house,” said Marlin, the Winston Cup points leader, who stretched his lead to 106 points over Mark Martin.
Busch, who turns 24 on Aug. 4, said: ”I was 10 years old when Bill Elliott was winning races back in 1988, and I would have thought that would have been the end of it. Here it is 2002, and he’s as strong as ever.”By DAVE CALDWELL
Published: July 29, 2002