ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - Paint Steve Park's car black, slap a No. 3 on it, and that could've been Dale Earnhardt out there banging fenders and heading for victory in the last lap of the Dura-Lube 400.
A tearful Park paid tribute to his late boss by taking an Earnhardt car and bumping his way to the checkered flag Monday.
Bobby Labonte, the defending Winston Cup champion, was banging at Park's rear bumper in a finish that came down to which driver got the best run off the fourth turn.
The two cars bumped, and the right rear of Labonte's car caromed off the concrete wall. Park pulled away, winning by two car-lengths.
"I threw a block on him because I was trying my hardest to win this race," Park said. "I did what Dale Earnhardt would do."
When the rain-delayed race was over, Park grabbed the No. 3 Earnhardt hat hanging from his gearshift lever and thrust it out of his car window, holding it high in salute to the fallen hero as he took a slow victory lap.
He reversed direction with a smoking spin in front of the main grandstand and drove back the other way before stopping briefly alongside teammate and Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip. The two exchanged a high-five and took off in opposite directions around the 1.017-mile track, both with No. 3 hats thrust in the air.
It was a fitting and comforting end to an event that began on Sunday with a frightening first-lap crash that took Park's other teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., out of the race. The younger Earnhardt came away with minor bruises in a wreck eerily similar to the one in which his father was killed Feb. 18 on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
"It's been a tough week, and this is a dream finish," Park said. "Dale's gone, but he's not forgotten, and he's going to be with all the DEI drivers the rest of the year."
Labonte, also wearing one of the black, red and silver No. 3 Earnhardt hats, said: "I got up on the outside of him a little bit, and we were both slipping and sliding with that many laps on tires. I got up into the fence a little bit with the right rear. I tried hard to come back, but it's hard to get a good bite up off (turn) 4."
Park, who got his big break when Earnhardt hired him in 1996, had to compose himself in the final laps.
"I was emotional. I had tears coming down those last couple laps," he said. "Then I had to kind of wipe my nose and get back up on the steering wheel, 'cause that's what Dale would want me to do."
Park's car ran out of gas on the victory lap and needed a push to Victory Lane, where he scrambled out of the cockpit, climbed on the roof and leaped into the arms of his crew.
He scrambled back onto the roof, turned to the crowd and raised his arms in victory, bringing a huge roar from the 30,000 spectators who returned Monday.
As he celebrated, Park got a call from Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, now the team owner, who was watching the race at the DEI shop in Mooresville, N.C., about 90 miles away. Park said she was emotional but happy.
Rain on Sunday forced postponement of the last 341 laps of the 393-lap race. Monday was totally different, with the gloom of the previous afternoon giving way to bright sunshine.
Once the race resumed, it became a great fight among Park, Labonte and pole-winner Jeff Gordon.
It appeared three-time series champion Gordon was in command late in the race, but tire wear played a big part in the final result.
Park wrested the lead from Gordon on lap 339, and Labonte got past to take second on lap 379. At that point, the leader was ahead by more than four seconds, but Labonte began cutting into that steadily.
By the final lap, Park's yellow No. 1 was just a few car-lengths ahead of Labonte's green No. 18 Pontiac.
"I saw Bobby starting to catch me. I put a block on him to try to win this thing," Park said. "I'm just glad it was him. He's won this race. ... If it wasn't him, we probably both would have wrecked. But he checked up and he gave me the opportunity to win, and I want to thank him."
Asked what would have happened if it had been the elder Earnhardt on his back bumper instead of Labonte, Park laughed and said: "It would have been a hell of a wreck."
Gordon, who wound up third, said Park and Labonte outraced him in the long runs.
"I'm real proud of those guys and real happy for Dale Earnhardt Inc.," Gordon said. "They needed to have a good weekend like this. We're missing somebody here this week, and that's for sure. It's not going to be the same, but it was a heck of a race out there."
Tony Stewart finished fourth in another Pontiac, followed by the Ford of Ricky Craven. The top-finishing Dodge driver was Sterling Marlin in eighth.
There were two caution periods Monday - one when Mike Skinner slid harmlessly off turn 2 and the other for Stacy Compton's blown engine.
|1. (2) Steve Park, Chevrolet, 393, $144,593.|
2. (3) Bobby Labonte, Pontiac, 393, $125,727.
3. (1) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 393, $125,987.
4. (6) Tony Stewart, Pontiac, 393, $75,245.
5. (41) Ricky Craven, Ford, 393, $50,160.
6. (8) Johnny Benson, Pontiac, 393, $59,860.
7. (33) Rusty Wallace, Ford, 393, $85,350.
8. (26) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, 393, $64,370.
9. (16) Dave Blaney, Dodge, 393, $43,810.
10. (18) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 393, $91,237.
11. (22) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 393, $50,605.
12. (31) Robert Pressley, Ford, 393, $57,171.
13. (21) Bobby Hamilton, Chevrolet, 393, $50,260.
14. (36) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 392, $84,887.
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