“You can overcome anything in the world but fate.” – Richard Petty
Such words can be applied to an almost limitless array of situations throughout the history of NASCAR. So often, success turns up where it may not have been initially deemed likely. Other times, those who seem destined for greatness never reach their lofty potential. The space between expectation and outcome can be nonexistent or seemingly endless.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was a different world in 1998. Jeff Gordon was the hottest newcomer on the circuit. Names like Jarrett, Earnhardt, Rudd, Martin, Labonte and Wallace regularly populated the top finishing positions. Many of today’s stars were unknown local racers. Some were still in grade school. A couple were still in diapers.
NASCAR was modern but still had old school grit. Drivers earned their next ride by performing well in their current one. The top seats were filled with grey-haired veterans. As a matter of fact, Gordon was the only winner the previous season who wasn’t at least 30 by year’s end. Rookies weren’t given top-level cars and they certainly weren’t thought of as potential winners. But Gordon’s immense success began to change that way of thinking.
In 1998, four drivers would battle for Rookie of the Year honors. All were previously accomplished in different levels of racing. But what was different about this class of newcomers was the impressive teams with which they would race.
Kenny Irwin Jr. was a 27-year old out of Indianapolis, Ind. Growing up in open-wheel country, Irwin gained his footing racing USAC cars throughout the Midwest. The series was getting more attention as a feeder to NASCAR largely due to Gordon, as well as 1997 IndyCar champion Tony Stewart. Both drivers did the majority of their early racing in the small open-wheeled USAC cars. Irwin was the 1996 USAC National Midget Series champion, which helped him secure a full-time ride in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series with Liberty Racing. He had made four starts in 1996 for Liberty with a pole and top-five finish in his second race, so he seemed a natural choice for the seat in 1997.
Irwin was a surprise success in the Truck Series that year, gathering two wins, seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes. He finished 10th in the final standings and collected Rookie of the Year honors.
Irwin also attempted five Cup races late in the year for David Blair Motorsports with sponsorship from Action Performance, mostly via its Winner’s Circle division. Irwin failed to qualify at Rockingham but started no worse than 11th in the other four. That included a performance on debut at Richmond that saw Irwin lead laps and finish eighth.
“Everyone has been hoping to find the next Jeff Gordon,” team owner Blair said after Irwin’s final race. “I think we found him.”
For 1998, Irwin was tapped to replace veteran Ernie Irvan in Robert Yates Racing’s famed No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford. The car had been to Victory Lane every year since 1987 when Davey Allison won two races as a rookie. Oddly enough, the feat hadn’t been replicated since. With a championship caliber team and a veteran teammate in Dale Jarrett, Irwin was the clear early favorite.
Steve Park grew up in a very different world of racing. A native of Long Island, N.Y., Park raced modifieds on tracks throughout the Northeast. He won several races in the NASCAR Modified Series as well as the K&N Pro Series East. In 1996, Dale Earnhardt was putting a team together to run in the XFINITY Series. He reached out to Park with an interest in signing the modified ace. Park initially ignored the messages, believing that his friends were playing a prank on him. Park ended up signing with Earnhardt, piloting his No. 3 Chevrolet to three wins and Rookie of the Year accolades in 1997.
For 1998, Dale Earnhardt Inc. announced the formation of a Cup Series team with Park as the driver. Full season sponsorship came from Pennzoil and the car would carry the No. 1. After the success of the pairing in the XFINITY Series, few doubted the possibility of the car finishing in position No. 1 as well.
Kevin Lepage called Shelburne, Vt. home. Lepage spent several years in the XFINITY Series as well. Driving for smaller teams including his own family operation, he showed a lot of potential. Often, Lepage would finish higher than what was expected with his equipment. He picked up his first win in that division in 1996 at Homestead in what was considered quite an upset at the time.
Still, Lepage would play the role of the underdog in 1998. Driving for Joe Falk’s single-car team with a fraction of the budget that many teams had, Lepage would once again need to outperform the perceived limitations of the team if he was to contend for top rookie honors.
Jerry Nadeau, like Park and Lepage, was a northeastern native from Danbury, Ct. But that’s where the similarities between the two ended. Nadeau began his racing career in karts at the age of four. When he was 18, he won the World Karting Association Gold Cup championship. A talent scout connected Jerry to numerous other levels of racing, including competing in the Barber Dodge Pro Series, the 12 Hours of Sebring, Formula Ford, and several karting events. He even competed in Russia, winning two out of eight kart races on a track surface made entirely of ice.
Nadeau made a handful of starts in the Busch Series in 1995 and 1996 but didn’t have the success he would have liked. In 1997, Nadeau began the year spotting for Morgan Shepherd in the Cup Series. When Shepherd was replaced mid-season, Nadeau got his shot. The results were less than spectacular and he was let go from the ride. However, his driving had caught the attention of Bill Elliott, who was expanding his self-owned team to a two-car operation in 1998. The second car would be a joint venture with NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, carrying his famed No. 13 on the side. Like Irwin and Park, Nadeau was set to make his bid at NASCAR success.
But from the very beginning, it seemed luck was against the quartet. Nadeau and Park both failed to qualify for the third race in Las Vegas. Then, during practice for the next race at Atlanta, Park suffered a tire failure in Turn 4.
He pounded the outside wall multiple times, then rocketed across the frontstretch grass and hit the wall on pit road. Park suffered a broken femur in the crash and was out of the car until Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, things weren’t going much better for the others. Irwin qualified and finished fifth at Atlanta, but the early part of the year was mostly a struggle. He too failed to qualify for a race, missing the Coca-Cola 600 in May. Still, he managed a few decent finishes during the summer, placing in the top 10 at Sonoma and both Richmond events. Irwin started on the pole for the season finale at Atlanta, but his 16th-place finish left him 28th in points. It was enough to earn him Rookie of the Year but nowhere near as good of a performance as was anticipated.
For Lepage, exceeding expectations proved to be substantially more difficult this time around. He failed to qualify for the races at Rockingham and Richmond. Additionally, four DNFs left him buried deep in the standings. He could only muster a pair of 14th-place finishes in the No. 91 Chevrolet. However, he qualified fifth at Michigan in June. Performances such as that got the attention of Jack Roush. A contract was reportedly signed in June that would see Lepage replace Ted Musgrave in the PRIMESTAR-sponsored No. 16. Ultimately, Lepage was removed from the No. 91 during the Sonoma weekend after qualifying in the back and having to take a provisional to get into the Save Mart/Kragen 350.
Lepage’s move to Roush Racing ultimately took place in August. Finally, in a car capable of contending, it seemed his luck might turn around. Unfortunately, the results at Roush weren’t a huge improvement. While he did post two top 10 finishes at Bristol and Charlotte, five more DNFs left him mired in 35th when the final race had ended.
Things were even worse for Nadeau. After qualifying second for Sonoma, he overdrove turn 1a on the opening lap and slid off of the track.
Despite keeping himself in the top five early on, Nadeau’s FirstPlus Financial Ford developed issues and dropped down the order. On lap 14, the No. 13 Ford went straight in the Esses and hit the hillside, which left him last at the finish. Then after New Hampshire in July, Nadeau was released from the ride. He immediately took over the recently vacated Melling Racing car. However, his fortune didn’t improve much there. A trio of top 10 starts yielded no better than a 15th-place finish through the remainder of the year. Nadeau ended his freshman season 36th in the final points standings.
For Park, it was more about salvaging as much of 1998 as he could after missing nearly half of the races. His best results ended up being a pair of 11th-place runs at Michigan and Dover. Still, he didn’t stand much of chance at the rookie title. Park wound up placing 41st in the standings.
In the years following his rookie campaign, Lepage would race two more years in Cup at Roush with minimal success. Since then, he has primarily run in the NASCAR XFINITY Series on a part-time basis. Lepage has not returned to Victory Lane since 1998 in a national touring series event despite hundreds of starts in over a dozen different cars. However, at least Lepage had the opportunity to continue his racing career for so many years. His fellow rookie classmates wouldn’t be quite so fortunate.
Nadeau would land a ride at Hendrick Motorsports in 2000, leading him to his first and only win at Atlanta. However, success was hard to come by there as well. Nadeau moved to the No. 01 US Army sponsored team for 2003, finishing fourth at Texas with the up and coming organization. However, Nadeau would not get the opportunity to progress with the team.
On May 2, 2003, Nadeau was practicing his Pontiac at Richmond when a car slowed ahead of him. Nadeau spun trying to avoid it, hitting the driver’s side flush against the wall at high speed. He suffered multiple injuries, including a skull fracture. Despite being given only a six percent chance of surviving, he rehabilitated well over the next few months. Planning a comeback, he performed a test in an effort to determine if he was capable of driving. During the test, he was unable to feel the brake pedal under his foot and repeatedly lacked the strength to remain in the car for long runs. Though he had survived the terrible crash, Nadeau would be unable to race again.
Park had a stellar improvement in performance over the next three years. He scored a win in 2000 at Watkins Glen and 2001 at Rockingham. He was 10th in the standings after the August 2001 weekend in Bristol. Then, in a Busch Series race the following week, Park was involved in a bizarre crash. As the cars circled the track under caution, his steering wheel came off. Park’s car veered sharply to the left. At that exact moment, Larry Foyt’s Harrah’s Chevrolet was speeding past the field in order to line up on the inside line for the restart. Park was hit squarely in the driver’s side door.
In addition to several broken ribs, Park suffered a brain injury that occasionally hindered his speech and vision. He would return to competition in 2002 but with nowhere near the same results. He was released from his ride with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2003, with stints in various rides from Richard Childress Racing to the Truck Series. Still, Park never regained the level of success he had prior to the accident.
Irwin was released from Robert Yates Racing at the end of 1999 and moved to the No. 42 SabCo Racing Chevrolet for 2000. He finished fourth at Talladega in April, the lone bright spot in a dismal beginning to the year. On July 7th, he was practicing for the ThatLook.com 300 at New Hampshire. As he approached the third turn, Irwin’s throttle stuck and he was unable to slow the car. He hit the wall nearly head-on and the car flipped over. Irwin was killed instantly by a basilar skull fracture. He was just 30 years old.
For all of the promise that the rookie contenders of 1998 held, we have precious little to admire in terms of achievements. It’s impossible to know how many trophies could have been etched with these four names. In a sport that can be equal parts benevolent and cruel, these great competitors made their way to the highest level of stock car racing. Although their careers didn’t pan out quite as anticipated, the path they traveled open doors for many others. The trend of young drivers attaining top level rides has continued to this day. In fact, at least two races would be won by a rookie in each of the next four years. They were indeed trail blazers, just not in the sense that they intended.
Perhaps that was their fate all along.