Photo: Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

Throwback Thursday Theater – Park Breaks Through at Watkins Glen

By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor

For the 34th time, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will head up to New York to take on Watkins Glen International, a fast 11-turn road course that has played host to NASCAR’s premier series in August of each year. This week we’ll take a step back to the 2000 season and the running of the Global Crossing at The Glen for this edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater,” which saw a first time winner and things getting a bit heated between two former champions.

Heading into the race, the favorite to win was Jeff Gordon, who had won the six previous road course races and looked to be primed to score his seventh road course race in a row, but things would not quite work out in Gordon’s favor when the green flag flew.

With qualifying being rained out, the field was set by points as Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett would lead the field to green. After just two laps, the sparks started flying.

Race favorite Gordon and Tony Stewart, who both started in the top-10, bounced off of each other a few times before coming together at the start of the Esses, sending Gordon’s car into the Armco barrier just off track and causing damage to both cars. Remember the contact between Gordon and Stewart because things got even more fired up between the two later in the day.

On that same lap, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. had some trouble of his own, losing control of his No. 3 car heading out of the bus stop and backing his car into the Styrofoam soft wall at the exit of that corner. Earnhardt was able to drive away from the crash, but there was heavy damage to the rear end of his Goodwrench Chevrolet.

When the race went back green, leader Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton would trade the lead over the next 20 laps before the first round of green flag pit stops would begin, allowing three-time Watkins Glen winner Mark Martin to make his first appearance in the race lead for a couple of laps before he had to make his stop. As the green flag pit stops cycled through, a new contender emerged into the lead, with Steve Park taking over out front at lap 31 after starting 18th on the day.

Park, a New York native, had been through some trials and tribulations in his Cup Series career, breaking his leg in a practice crash at Atlanta in 1998, missing 15 races as a result. In 1999, Park struggled through the first half of the season, before scoring 13 top-15 finishes in the final 17 races of the season to gain some momentum into the 2000 season. Park had scored four top-10 finishes leading up to the race at Watkins Glen, giving Park and his team confidence that they could run well at Park’s home track.

As Park continued to lead at lap 37, the second caution of the day flew as a result of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spinning due to transmission troubles in Turn 2.

“The car wasn’t shifting into third gear at all and every lap, it’d be worse and worse and worse and wouldn’t shift and finally the linkage broke between third and fourth. When the linkage broke, it went down and hit the ground and knocked the car into reverse coming up through the inner loop and spun the car around and tore it up. Bent the clip on the car and probably bent the front clip too. Just a shame, we changed transmissions this morning. Probably shouldn’t have now,” said Earnhardt, Jr.

The race went back to green at lap 38, but that was short-lived as the third caution flew at lap 40 for Kyle Petty losing control through the Carousel, sending his car into the Styrofoam soft wall, much like what happened to Dale Earnhardt, Sr. earlier in the race. Just prior to that caution coming out, Jeff Gordon, who was trying to get his lap back, was black flagged for passing too many cars before the green flag flew on the prior restart.

Park held onto the race lead through lap 56, when he ducked onto pit road for his final pit stop of the day to start the green flag pit stop cycle. As the pit stops cycled through, the lead would change hands between Bobby Labonte, Robby Gordon, Wally Dallenbach, and Ricky Rudd until Park reassumed the lead at lap 64 just as the fourth caution of the day came out for oil on the frontstretch.

One final caution would come out five laps later as Tom Hubert, who was filling in for Jeremy Mayfield, spun in Turn 5.

When the race restarted for the final green flag run on lap 71, Park had his mirror full of Martin and Burton fighting for position behind him, but Park was able to pull away from the two Roush Racing entries. Martin got some distance from Burton and set his sights on Park and the lead over the final 10 laps.

Though Martin gave Park a run for his money, Park’s No. 1 Chevrolet was strong enough to hold off Martin as he would lead 53 of the 90 total laps en route to his first career win in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

Once he crossed the finish line to capture the win, Park would circle back around to the frontstretch, stopping his car and getting out onto the roof, thrusting his arms into the air in celebration.

“It’s just unbelievable. I’d like to thank God. I’d like to thank my family, Mom and Dad, they’re not here, I wish they were here. It’s emotional. I’ve got to thank Dale Earnhardt and Teresa and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. And Pennzoil, man, I don’t know what to say. They’ve stuck by us through thick and thin, broken bones and everything else. We told them we’d bring them to victory lane and they stuck by us and here we are in victory lane. This Chevrolet Monte Carlo hot rod was pretty hard to beat and that Ford was coming tough there at the end, but I thought we had something to hold them off,” said Park.

Remember the Gordon-Stewart incident from Lap 2? Well, while Park was celebrating in victory lane, Gordon and Stewart were getting into it back in the garage area. The two drivers parked right next to each other, got out and a shouting match ensued.

“I had you,” said Gordon.

“You’d better practice what you preach,” Stewart replied. ”You’re always telling me to take it easy on the first lap. You think I did it on purpose?”

“I’ll slam you straight in the wall the next time you’re near me,” Gordon said as he walked away. “I owe you one now, buddy.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.

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