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Earnhardt protege fails to make Pocono field

July 19, 1997

LONG POND, Pa. (AP) _ Dale Earnhardt wound up as a loser in the Pennsylvania 500 before they even dropped the flag Sunday at Pocono International Raceway.

On Saturday, his protege, Steve Park, failed to qualify for the 42-car field in his first stab at Winston Cup racing. His Chevrolet Monte Carlo owned by Dale Earnhardt Inc. was one of three cars sent home.

But the experience did little to throttle Park, the top rookie in NASCAR’s Busch Grand National division.

``I can’t believe how quickly this has happened,″ said Park, who campaigns DEI’s Busch entry.

With a background in modifieds, the 29-year-old driver from East Northport, N.Y., says working for Earnhardt was more than he could have expected. But 17 victories in 152 Featherlite tour races helped his recognition factor.

``To have gotten the opportunity to drive the Busch Grand National car was a shock at first,″ Park said. ``There are still times when I have to stop and let it soak in.″

Earnhardt, winless in 16 months and hoping to avoid extending his career-worst drought to 45 races, said his decision to put Park in the BGN car and move him up for selected races was not a difficult one.

``He’s an aggressive driver, but he still realizes that he has to have enough car left at the end to race with,″ the seven-time Winston Cup champion said of Park’s driving style.

But, The Intimidator, who drives a Chevy owned by Richard Childress Racing, says he wouldn’t be charitable toward his protege should the need arise to outrace his own car.

``If if comes down to it, I’d race Park as hard as anyone else,″ Earnhardt said. ``He’s out there to learn, and he needs to learn real quick that nobody is going to give him a thing.″

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QUIET MUSGRAVE: With Mark Martin generally accepted as one of the great drivers of his era, and teammate Jeff Burton also looking for his third victory of the year in the Pennsylvania 500, Jack Roush’s garage runneth over.

Martin is third in the Winston Cup points race, and Burton _ hoping to become only the third Winston Cup driver to win three races in his breakthrough season _ is fifth. Five positions back, laboring in virtual anonymity, is Ted Musgrave.

The 41-year-old Wisconsin native is still searching for his first career victory. He has three second-place finishes in four years behind the wheel of Roush-owned Fords.

Pocono International Raceway, where Musgrave has four top-five finishes _ including a second in 1995 _ might be the place for his coming out party. He finished sixth here last month in the Pocono 500.

But history is against him. No driver ever has collected his breakthrough victory on the 2 1/2-mile Pocono layout.

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SOARING STEELE: Tim Steele won for the third straight time at Pocono International Raceway, easily prevailing Saturday in a field of 34 in the Pepsi 400k.

The victory in the ARCA race was his fifth on the mountaintop.

Steele drove his Ford to victory by .489 seconds over Frank Kimmel. The two-time and defending ARCA champion, who leads the series standings again this year, won for the seventh time in 13 races.

All told, Steele has been in the top 10 all 10 times he has raced on the 2 1/2-mile track.

He started from the pole, gave up the point only during pit stops, and led all but nine of 100 laps for the 25th victory of his ARCA career. That moved him into sixth place in career victories, 54 behind six-time series champion Iggy Katona.

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PIT STOPS: Terry Labonte will be making his 555th consecutive start Sunday in the Pennsylvania 500, extending his own Winston Cup record. He set the mark with his 514th last season. Richard Petty had started 513 consecutive races ... Joe Nemechek will earn a bonus of $53,200 from Unocal should he win Sunday from the pole. The bonus, which grows by $7,600 per race, was last collected by Jeff Gordon, who got $15,200 for winning in May at Charlotte ... Another bonus, this one for $30,000, could go to Gordon or Mark Martin should either assume the lead in the Winston Cup standings with a victory. Gordon trails teammate Terry Labonte by three points, and Martin is 52 back ... Ricky Craven, who began the season full of hope with finishes of third and fifth, has only one top-10 placing in the last 15 races ... Dale Earnhardt’s high-profile losing streak pales in comparison to that of Darrell Waltrip. The three-time series champion hasn’t been to the winner’s circle since Sept. 6, 1992, a span of 148 races.

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