OXFORD — A slow rain starts to fall as Steve Park pulls into pit row just off the track at Oxford Plains Speedway.

He has just finished his practice laps prior to Sunday afternoon’s qualifying heats for the evening’s main event — the Oxford 250 — and he is greeted by a smiling boy with a piece of car trim and black Sharpie.

Park gladly signs an autograph, poses for a photo and even has time to crack a quick joke.

“Did you see Greg Biffle over there behind you,” he deadpans before giving way to a smile.

Steve Park has made a career out of racing — competing in the NASCAR Winston (Sprint) Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Cup Series. Past glory is not what brings him to Oxford Plains on Sunday though.

“Growing up in New England I’ve known about (the Oxford 250) my whole entire life,” said Park, a native of East Northport, N.Y. “I actually had been up here with my dad quite early — mid to late 90s with my dad — and growing up, racing in the Northeast you always wanted to have the chance to run the Oxford 250.

“With my career moving down south I thought I would never have the chance to be in it. Now I’m semi-retired and I’m kind of picking and choosing what I want to do on a bucket list. This was right at the top of it.”

It has taken Park nearly 30 years to get to the Oxford 250, but on Sunday he is all smiles as he prepares to race. It is a journey that 18 years ago could have taken on a vastly different path had it not been for a phone call.

“I was kind of aspiring to go towards was the Busch North (Series) and fortunately I (ran) the Busch North maybe nine or 10 times back in the late 90s and got the phone call from Dale Earnhardt to move back down south,” Park said. “I wish I had the opportunity to come run Oxford but I also couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to go run down south.”

He nearly did pass up the opportunity unintentionally, dismissing the phone call he received from Earnhardt as one of his friends playing a joke on him.

“You look at anybody here, if they got a phone call from Dale Earnhardt would they think it would be real,” Park said. “It was really hard to believe but then when it was true and I eventually called him back the second time after he called I said, ‘man I’m glad I didn’t miss this opportunity.’

“…We got a chance to talk and he hired me to come drive for him. It was a dream come true.”

Park grabbed the only two wins of his NASCAR Winston Cup career while racing for Dale Earnhardt Inc. — the first of which at his home track of Watkins Glen in 2000. It was a victory he still remembers fondly as he not only got to celebrate it on his home track, but he got to do so with the man who gave him his big break.

“Every win in Cup is great,” he said of the 2000 Global Cross @ The Glen. “The first win is the one you always remember but man, Dale came into victory lane and hugged me around the neck.”

His second and final win on the Winston Cup series would come a year later, but the atmosphere afterward was far different.

Park was in the field for the 2001 Dayton 500, a race that will forever be known for the last-lap crash that claimed the life of Earnhardt.

“It was the worst day ever,” Park recalled. “I compare it to when like Elvis passed away.”

Park was not in Daytona when Earnhardt crashed, however, as he had demolished his car in the wreck that sent Tony Stewart’s car flipping through the air and was already on a plane to Statesville, N.C.

“We landed in Statesville and got the news that Dale had passed. It was the worst news you could ever get,” he said. “At first you’re in disbelief because how can an icon — how can Superman die?”

Park vividly remembers the days after Earnhardt passed away. He was set to race in the Dura Lube 400 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, N.C. the weekend after Daytona, but it is the meetings at DEI leading up to the race that stood out most.

“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday all we did was have high-level meetings with Teresa (Earnhardt) and the whole group on what we should do, how we should address the media, how we shouldn’t, what would Dale want to do,” Park said. “I remember the day we sat in the conference room with all the high levels of DEI and I think Teresa said if Dale was sitting at the end of the table — which was empty now — what would he say?

“We all agreed. When Neil Bonnett passed away Dale was still alive obviously, and he said he was going to go out and win the next race for his good buddy Neil. At that point we kind of knew what our job was.”

That is exactly what Park did. He won the Dura Lube 400, but it was not that same feeling as it was in Watkins Glen when Earnhardt was there to greet him with a hug in victory lane.

“When I won Rockingham it was bittersweet,” Park said. “We just knew it was good for the fans, good for the team but it was bittersweet because you should be enjoying the pinnacle of your success and we were still healing the scars of the loss of Dale.”

That was almost a lifetime ago though, and now Park is enjoying checking off items on his bucket list. As his racing career winds down, the pride in his voice is still evident having come from Long Island — not what you would call a NASCAR hot bed — to racing against the best in the world.

“Being able to go down south (you) feel like you’re bringing part of the Northeast with you,” Park said. “…It’s a very short list of people that have come from this region that have made it at the pinnacle of auto racing.”

Steve Park will always be one of them and as he chats with fans just outside his pit area, that same smile can’t help but make its way across his face.

Evan Crawley — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: Evan_Crawley

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