ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- The NASCAR community got what it wanted more than anything else in the world here Monday -- no, make that the thing it wanted second most.
What everybody wanted most, of course, was Dale Earnhardt back. But that couldn't be.
The next-best thing was a competitive, clean race, free of accidents and controversy, and won by one of Dale Earnhardt's Chevies.
It's too bad the old man wasn't here to put a neck hug on Steve Park, who won a stirring battle with Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon in the resumption of Sunday's rain-delayed, 393-lap Dura Lube 400 at North Carolina Speedway, known in racing circles as "the Rock."
'He was right there with me those last couple of laps. It was hard to concentrate, I was so emotional. I had tears coming down and had to kind of wipe my nose and get back up on the steering wheel because that's what Dale Earnhardt would want me to do and that's what we did -- together.'
It was the second consecutive victory for a Dale Earnhardt Inc. car in the season's first two races. Michael Waltrip won the Daytona 500 last week, only seconds after Earnhardt had lost his life half a mile short of the finish line when he crashed into the fourth-turn wall and was killed instantly.
"What Labonte didn't know on those last couple of laps was that he had Dale Earnhardt ahead of him," Park said. "He was right there with me those last couple of laps. It was hard to concentrate, I was so emotional. I had tears coming down and had to kind of wipe my nose and get back up on the steering wheel because that's what Dale Earnhardt would want me to do and that's what we did -- together."
After Gordon had led for 180 laps in his Chevrolet, and traded the lead 10 times with Park, Labonte came up in his Pontiac to challenge in the late stages of the race around the Rock's odd distance -- 90 feet longer than one mile.
Labonte, defending Winston Cup champion, pulled alongside Park's yellow Pennzoil No. 1, on the next-to-last lap, but Park managed to stay slightly in front. The winning margin was 0.138 of a second, about the length of the hood. Gordon finished third, followed by Tony Stewart in a Pontiac, Ricky Craven in a Ford and Johnny Benson in a Pontiac.
"I missed getting a sore neck from one of Dale's bear hugs in Victory Lane, but he was there with me," Park said. "He'll be with us all year, pounding it into us that second is not satisfactory. You've got to win to get that smile to twinkle and that mustache to twitch.
"He laid the groundwork for this team. All we're doing is fulfilling the vision he had. We learned to live by his creed, which is to win.... We're two for two and we're going for three for three next week."
The next Winston Cup race is scheduled Sunday on the 1.5-mile tri-oval in Las Vegas, the UAW/DaimlerChrysler 400.
"Michael won at Daytona, I won here and Dale Jr. is going to in Las Vegas," said Park. "That should make for a hell of a race the next week in Atlanta."
What might have been the final of many private memorials to Earnhardt took place Sunday night in Kannapolis, the nearby textile mill town where the senior Earnhardt grew up and where his mother, Martha, still lives.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not race Monday, having crashed his Chevrolet on the first lap of Sunday's rain-abbreviated race day. The impact bruised his thigh when his lap belt was cinched too tight.
Teresa Earnhardt, Dale's widow, called Park in Victory Lane to congratulate him.
"She and Junior were back at the shop in Mooresville, getting things ready for Las Vegas," said team manager Ty Norris. "Monday is a workday and there was business to take care of, but she was here in spirit."
Little E's wall-banging incident on Sunday was the only one in the race as the stock car elite ran 338 laps with only Jimmy Spencer's spin in the second turn marring an otherwise perfect day.
After the race, Park drove around the track in the reverse direction, waving to the crowd of about 30,000. He stopped twice, once to accept Labonte's cap-waving salute and again to high-five teammate Waltrip.
"When I saw Labonte pull out one of those black No. 3 Earnhardt hats and give me a thumbs up, I was crying so hard I almost ran into Waltrip," Park said. "The best thing about doing the Polish victory lap is that it gets the driver's side over so he can see the fans.
"They're all hanging on the fence and they're all waving their Dale Earnhardt hats and shirts--ripping them off their body to wave 'em. To be able to salute Dale by getting a win and saluting all the DEI fans by doing a reverse lap and being able to signify the race was in his honor by waving his hat, it was just beyond words."
Park and Labonte were so gracious in their postrace interviews, you would have thought they had just played a friendly tennis match instead of matching horsepower at 155 mph, making a complete circuit of the track every 23 seconds.
Said Park: "I want to thank Bobby Labonte for the way he raced me at the end. Some guys would have tried more than they should and we would have wrecked. Not Bobby. he took what he felt he could and didn't mess us up. I just want to thank Bobby Labonte."
Responded Labonte: "That makes me feel good. It's the same feeling from me. I'm glad it was Steve Park. We were able to rub a little bit, but we didn't do anything wrong. He was driving his fanny off, just like I was driving mine off, and that's what makes it worthwhile. We both end up smiling because we both gave it our best shot."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.