DARLINGTON, S.C. -- It took Steve Park six months to return to racing after tangling with Darlington Raceway.
It doesn't seem like Tony Stewart will need that much time -- if any -- to come back after a hard crash.
On a day when Sterling Marlin continued his dominating Winston Cup start with a win at the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400, Park was back racing with mixed results and Stewart was flown to the hospital with lower back pain following the 11-car accident.
Stewart was awake and alert after hitting the wall in turn two, according to crew chief Greg Zipadelli.
Tests were negative, track spokeswoman Cathy Mock said, and Stewart was admitted to a hospital for overnight observation because of lower back tenderness.
His spirits, though, were high. Mock said Stewart asked the doctor for a pizza and a Coke.
"He's hurting pretty good, but he is fully conscious," Zipadelli said. "We'll just keep our fingers crossed and pray for him."
Park was hoping for a safe, successful comeback Sunday. His freak accident in a Busch race here in September bruised his brain, blurred his vision and slowed his speech. He held three test sessions, including one at Darlington last week, before getting the green light from NASCAR.
Park, who started fourth, quickly moved to the front and held the lead for 19 laps. But as Park tried to get around his friend, Stacy Compton, they clipped and crashed.
Park's crew worked for more than 90 minutes before finally returning him to "The Track Too Tough to Tame." Park finished 39th, 160 laps behind Marlin.
Park thought Compton should have given him more room to pass. Compton thought Park lost traction.
"I'd would like to be standing in victory lane doing an interview with you, but we're not," Park said. "We got a lot of racing left."
Park said he was definitely primed for Bristol Motor Speedway and next week's Food City 500.
NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said the governing body had no problems with Park's driving or conduct Sunday.
"We're glad he's back," Hunter said.
Marlin, meanwhile, again looked like he could do anything he wanted.
Marlin had gone from 1997-2000 without a win, but has four of his 10 career victories since Chip Ganassi became the primary car owner before last season.
"The team I'm with right now is a lot more dominant team," Marlin said. "Week in and week out, when we go to the tracks, we've got as good a chance as anybody to win the race.
"It's a credit to all the guys who do all the hard work at the shop, and to Chip, too."
Marlin, the series points leader, qualified 11th for the race but was forced to start in the back after his team changed the engine in his Dodge Intrepid.
"We knew we had a problem and couldn't take a chance with it," crew chief Lee McCall said. "So we put our best motor in and started in the rear and watched Sterling drive that thing up through traffic all day long."
Marlin continually slipped past cars as he charged to the front. But he needed the 11-car wreck to get past Stewart, the race leader at the time, and Jeff Gordon, who finished ninth despite leading 176 of 293 laps.
Marlin said he followed Gordon through the smoke -- to take the lead.
"He's usually pretty good at getting by wrecks," Sterling Marlin said.
He went almost unchallenged over the last portion and retained his Winston Cup points lead. He has a 99-point advantage over Ryan Newman.
"We were patient," Marlin said. "We knew we had a good car and we just didn't take any chances."
Elliott Sadler finished second, Kevin Harvick was third and was followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Newman.
While Marlin leaves here with victory, Park takes away something as important -- peace of mind.
Park said Ricky Craven, the polesitter also caught up the accident with Compton, encouraged him to keep his head up as he moves through the Winston Cup circuit.
"He said, 'Man, you ran good, everyone could see how good you ran,"' Park said. "Ricky's support made me feel a little bit better."
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