DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) _ Steve Park's fourth-place qualifying effort felt just as good as if he'd taken the pole.
Park picked the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway to make his comeback from a serious head injury. Ricky Craven, who resurrected his own career after a similar injury, won the pole in qualifying Friday for Sunday's race.
``I gave a big sigh of relief when we qualified as well as we did,'' Park said. ``Obviously I was nervous, but I was excited, too. I earned the right to be here and qualify.''
Craven, who missed most of the 1998 season while he recovered from post-concussion syndrome, ran a lap at 170.089 mph around the 1.366-mile oval in a Ford to take his second pole of the season and the sixth of his career.
Jeff Gordon, off to a slow start in his bid to defend his Winston Cup title, qualified second at 170.071 in a Chevrolet.
Rookie Ryan Newman was third in a Ford at 169.895, followed by Park, the fastest driver in the morning practice session, at 169.351 in a Chevy.
``If I had one wish, it would be that everyone give him a mulligan, just give him a break,'' Craven said. ``Because he proved today he's every bit the driver he was before the accident.''
The 34-year-old Park was injured in a Busch race here last year when his car veered left under caution and into the path of Larry Foyt, who was speeding to catch up with the pace car. It's believed that the steering wheel came off of its mount, causing Park's car to make the sharp movement.
His injuries led to temporary blurred vision and slurred speech, hindering his comeback attempt. Kenny Wallace filled in for him at Dale Earnhardt Inc., but was relieved of his duties this week when Park was cleared to come back.
Craven felt confident that Park was ready to return.
``We do this because we have a passion for it and probably the most difficult time for me was watching somebody else drive my race car,'' Craven said. ``I know Steve's been out for six months watching somebody else drive his car, and he's back _ No. 1 because he's 100 percent and he feels great and ready to race.
``But he's also back because he has that passion.''
Park estimates his vision has improved to about 95 percent, although his speech is still a bit slurred. But he's excited to race on Sunday and will have his parents in attendance for support.
``We've put them through a lot,'' he said. ``So it will be good to have them here to see me make it all the way back.''
Jimmie Johnson, teammate and protege to Gordon, starts fifth. Elliot Sadler goes sixth, followed by Jimmy Spencer, Ken Schrader, Jeff Green and Bill Elliott.
Points leader Sterling Marlin qualified 11th.
Only 43 cars attempted to qualify for the race, meaning everyone made the field, including Shawna Robinson, who was the slowest car on the track at 154.642. Robinson was not originally scheduled to run this event but came when it became clear she would be guaranteed a spot in the field.
Gordon, meanwhile, was encouraged by his qualifying run and hoped it might jump-start his season. Currently 11th in the points, the four-time series champion has struggled in qualifying in the first four events, and his highest finish was a seventh at North Carolina Speedway.
``We've struggled here a little bit recently,'' Gordon said. ``Some of it started on qualifying and I knew I needed a good run to get things going. Hopefully this can start the weekend out right.''