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Sturbin: Thinking Of Richie Evans

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, July 3 2010

Richie Evans, Hall of Fame candidate, to be honored by Tommy Baldwin Racing. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

No NASCAR Sprint Cup driver competing at Daytona International Speedway tonight is going to upstage the events surrounding Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s emotional Nationwide Series victory in a No. 3 car honoring his daddy.

Junior brought down the house, and plenty of tears, Friday night when he drove a yellow-and-blue No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet – the livery associated with the early portion of Dale Earnhardt’s career – into Victory Lane at DIS. Cap E posted a record 34 stock car wins on the high-banked, 2.5-mile trioval before the crash that took his life there between Turns 3 and 4 on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

I was among the stunned media corps sitting in the Houston Lawing Press Box on Feb. 18, 2001, when we all wrote the obituary of the seven-time Cup champion. Juxtaposed was the story of the first Cup race won by Dale Earnhardt Inc. protégé Michael Waltrip, with Junior as runnerup.

It was a series of improbable events that defined the term bittersweet.

As is often the case at DIS, another Earnhardt angle will be in play during tonight’s running

Tommy Baldwin's tribute to Richie Evans. (Photo courtesy of Tommy Baldwin Racing)

of the Coke 400. Former Cup regular Steve Park, another Earnhardt pupil, will be making his first series start since July 2003 in Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 Chevrolet. Additionally, the car is decked-out in a paint scheme honoring former NASCAR Modified champion Richie Evans – the Dale Earnhardt of my hometown of Rome, N.Y.

Park’s Impala features a throwback “Evans Orange”-and-black paint scheme with the names of fans sponsoring the car integrated into the design. Evans’ nickname – “The Rapid Roman” – is scripted on the hood. Imitation nerf bars used to protect the open wheels and front and rear ends of the typical Modified have been painted onto the car. Park, a second-generation Modified star, will start from the 39th spot on the 43-car grid after qualifying was rained-out Friday afternoon.

For a fan of Evans, all that’s missing is his trademark No. 61. In any event, I’d like to give a shout out to Baldwin, a former Cup crew chief whose father, Tom Sr., also campaigned Modifieds in the Northeast’s bull rings. Park’s father, Bob, did likewise and judging by posts on the TBR website, NASCAR fans have forgotten neither Richie’s championship exploits nor Steve’s star-crossed career.

“Having Richie Evans along for the ride for this weekend and honoring him is something special to all of us, especially in the NASCAR short track community around the country,” said Baldwin, who founded his Cup team in January 2009. “Richie was somebody we all looked up to and when he came to town, we knew we had to beat him to win.  He made us all work harder, and I think that prepared a lot of us for the Sprint Cup level.”

Baldwin, a 43-year-old native of Bellport, N.Y., is a 12-year Cup veteran whose five wins have been highlighted by the 2002 Daytona 500 with Ward Burton. Baldwin served as crew chief for his father and Burton, as well as Park, Ricky Craven, Dick Trickle, Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler and Dave Blaney. But he never has forgotten his racing roots.

“I hope that this will be the first in a line of tributes to some of the best racers in the world, who inspired me and many others – Modified racers,” Baldwin said.

Modified fans have contributed from $20 to $10,000 to have their names etched on the Evans tribute Chevy. Each sponsorship package carries different levels of involvement, including pit passes, garage tours and featured placement on the car’s hood. Any proceeds exceeding $125,000 will be donated by TBR to the Victory Junction Gang Camp, a facility for kids with special needs founded by Kyle and Pattie Petty in honor of their late son, Adam.

Known as “The King of Modified Racing,” Evans won eight consecutive class championships from 1978 to 1985 and nine overall. In 1979, Evans posted an incredible 54 top-five finishes in 60 Modified starts. From Quebec, Canada, to Florida, Evans racked up more than 400 career victories while putting Rome and Central New York on the racing map.  The rivalry between Evans and fellow-Roman Jerry Cook, a six-time NASCAR Modified champion,  divided many a household in “The Copper City” during their heydays.

Evans was 44 when he was killed in a crash while practicing for the Winn-Dixie 500 tripleheader at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 24, 1985. Ironically, he already had clinched the Winston Modified Tour championship, now known as the Whelen Modified Tour.

Evans also was one of the 25 inaugural Class of 2010 nominees for the recently opened NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., and remains on the ballot for 2011. Closer to home, one of his restored No. 61 Modifieds is prominently displayed in the recently expanded NASCAR wing of the Rome Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

“Richie is respected by so many drivers, and he really made his mark in this sport,” said Park, 42, who is working with crew chief Kevin Buskirk this weekend. “This is a really neat way to get the fans involved while paying homage to one of the greats.”

Park, who started on-pole at DIS in July 2003, was hand-picked by Earnhardt to join his fledgling Dale Earnhardt Inc. operation in 1996. A native of East Northport, N.Y., Park won Cup races at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International and North Carolina Speedway – the latter the weekend after his mentor was killed at DIS. But Park’s career began to slide after he suffered a brain injury in a grinding T-bone crash involving Larry Foyt during a Nationwide race at Darlington Raceway in 2001.

Park’s fulltime Cup career ended after the 2003 season, during which he drove for DEI and Richard Childress Racing. Park, who has six victories across NASCAR’s three touring series, currently is a regular in the NASCAR Camping World East Series. On Jan. 2, Steve and wife Jessica celebrated the birth of their first child, son Jayden Robert Park…a likely third-generation Modified star in, say, 2028.

Tonight, however, Park will be riding with Richie in the afterglow of Dale Jr.’s tribute-filled victory to his daddy. For all that might-have-been, it promises to be bittersweet.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, July 3 2010
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