ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - With two laps to go yesterday in the Dura Lube 400, driver Steve Park started to cry. He was out front, leading the race, and all he could think about was that he going to win this Winston Cup race for Dale Earnhardt.
Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion who owned Park's team and two others, was killed Feb. 18 in the Daytona 500.
This was the organization's first chance to show its strength and how much it emulates the strong man who had been its boss.
"I had to wipe my nose and get back up on the steering wheel," said Park, his voice still shaking. "I did what Dale Earnhardt would have wanted me to do. But I'm glad it's over.
"We've been through an emotional roller coaster the last couple weeks. To fight back the emotions I was feeling the last five laps, to just stand on the seat and do what Dale taught me to do really was incredible."
It had been a long week of sorrow. Earnhardt died on the last lap of the 500. He was buried on Wednesday and memorialized on Thursday. On Friday, NASCAR said a defective seat belt may have contributed to his death. And, on Sunday, when this race was originally scheduled to be run, his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., crashed hard into the fourth-turn wall, just as his dad had in Daytona.
It scared everyone, until they saw Earnhardt Jr. crawl out of the driver's side window and limp to safety.
The race was continued yesterday morning at Lap 52 under bright sunshine. And it was a very safe race, with only two cautions during the day for two minor spins.
And when Park took the checkered flag in victory, nearly everyone on the track and even in the garage area was happy.
"I can't think of a better finish," said Jeff Gordon, who finished third, after leading the most laps (180). "Other than Dale Jr., I think it's pretty awesome to see a Dale Earnhardt car winning despite all they've been through."
Bobby Labonte, who finished second, certainly was happy. In fact, for a fleeting moment it looked as if Labonte actually wanted Park to win. Certainly, Park seemed to think so.
Park was leading comfortably on the 1.017-mile oval when Labonte started his charge. Over the last 10 laps, he overcame a 1.5-second deficit to attempt several heart-stopping tries for the lead.
And on the last lap, the two contended all the way around the track. But the biggest attack came going into the third turn, when Labonte got his right front bumper up beside Park's left rear and then backed off.
"We weren't far enough alongside him to make a good challenge," Labonte said. "I let up a little to protect ourselves. ... I just knew I had to be careful. If we had been wheel to wheel, I might have stayed in it."
But that's not quite the way Park saw it.
"I put a block on Bobby to win," Park said. "But he checked up and gave me the opportunity to win. It's been a tough week with a dream finish. I'm real thankful Bobby checked up. I can see why Bobby Labonte is a true Winston Cup champion."
Park said he knew if there had been some other drivers behind him, the outcome might have been different. And in a light moment, when asked what would have happened if Dale Earnhardt was behind him, he laughed and said, "We would have wrecked."
And then more seriously: "What Bobby didn't know today was that Dale Earnhardt was in front of him.
"We couldn't see Dale today, but down there [pointing down to the track], he was there," Park said. "He was there, and he'll be there throughout our careers. He'll be with us spiritually for a very long time."
Dale Earnhardt Inc. has been in business for four years. Its Busch Grand National cars have won Rookie of the Year (Park) and two series titles (Dale Jr.), and its Winston Cup cars have won five races. Dale Jr. won twice last season and Park once, at Watkins Glen.
Park, 33, joined DEI in 1997 and moved up to the Winston Cup series in 1998, but suffered a broken leg and missed 15 races. A year later, he finished 14th in the Winston Cup points race and last year won his first race.
Now, he has his second career victory, and DEI has started the 2001 season with back-to-back victories. On the day Earnhardt died, his driver, Michael Waltrip, won the 500 in which they all were racing.
"Dale always told me I couldn't speak for him, so I won't," said Ty Norris, DEI's director of motor- sports. "But for what DEI has accomplished in our fourth season - to win the Daytona 500 and back it up here - it shows you we're fulfilling the vision Dale Earnhardt had.
"This is his vision, not ours. We just wanted to make the races. He said that wasn't good enough; that if you wanted to work for him, you have to win."
Park added: "You never got a pat on the back for running second. You might get one for winning. But if you made a mistake, you'd find yourself out there with him baling hay under a hot sun."