Winning consecutive Daytona 500 races will always be a calling card for former NASCAR driver Sterling Marlin.
He joins racing legends Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to gather the checkered flag in back-to-back years at the Grand American Race. Yet, the one Marlin didn’t win still causes the most discussion.
It was 2002, and Marlin had been wrestling with a faulty fender while running up front alongside Jeff Gordon. They bumped, sending Gordon spinning and the field swerving. The red flag from officials halted the race with three laps to go and Marlin leading.
But that fender had been stuck in Marlin’s craw the entire race. While sitting in the car on the track during the red flag, Marlin and crew chief Tony Glover wondered what to do about that darn fender.
Marlin said Friday the conversation with Glover went like this:
“(Glover) said, ‘What do you think?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Can you get out and look at it?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I can get out and look at it.’ He said, ‘Well, fix it if you can.’ And I said, ‘Roger that, I’ll fix it.’ So, I got out and pulled it out. And it was kind of a no-no.”
Yes-yes on the no-no part. NASCAR officials penalized Marlin and sent him to the back of the field, where he didn’t stay long, but still finished eighth as Ward Burton eventually won the race.
On the subject of getting out of the car during the red flag, Marlin remembers vividly off-track buddy Dale Earnhardt Sr. once got out of his parked car during a red flag for some car maintenance.
“I saw Earnhardt do it one time,” said Marlin, who retired from racing after the 2009 season after running 748 NASCAR Cup races and winning 10. “He got out and cleaned his windshields. I said, ‘Well, heck, he got out and did it, so I can get out and fix a fender.’
“They didn’t like it too much.”
Which makes yet another Marlin tale a large part of the lore that surrounds the Daytona 500, the annual kickoff to the Sprint Cup season. More history will be made Sunday at the 55th annual Great American Race.
Danica Patrick has already made history this year by becoming the first woman to ever win the pole position to start a Cup race. Alongside her in the first row after qualifying second is Gordon. The second row has Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who each won a Budweiser Duels race on Thursday.
Marlin is non-plussed about Patrick winning the pole. He figures she had a great car and great crew, and most drivers who could have kept a similar car off the walls in qualifying would have gotten at least a top-10 starting spot.
“I think it is going to bring some extra attention to the 500,” Marlin said of Patrick. “She’s still learning. At Daytona, if you have a really good car and a really good crew, it will then tell a tale when she starts racing and we see what she’s got.
“I know she has a really good car and a really good team.”
Marlin won’t be surprised when The Big One comes during this or any other Daytona 500. It seems a big wreck that collects multiple cars happens about every year.
“It’s a lot of luck,” Marlin said. “It’s just a matter of where you are. They’re going to wreck. You hope that they don’t. But these cars look like they are little harder to drive.
“You get to running a whole race, and it gets down to the end and you have a caution with 10 (laps) to go … they are going to pile them up. Somebody is going to cut off somebody or somebody is going to give somebody a break and let him in (line) and wad them all up.”
Marlin knows a thing or two about running the Daytona 500. After winning the race in 1994 and ’95, he was leading the following year when a late flat tire ended his run at possibly winning three in a row.
But the memories of winning twice and the other close calls, even the infamous fender flap of 2002, can’t compare to first stepping behind the wheel at the Daytona 500 in 1980 as a substitute driver for his father, former Cup driver and short track legend Coo Coo Marlin.
“He had high blood pressure and never told anybody,” Marlin said of his father, who ran 165 Cup races from 1966-80 and died in 2005. “He was really dizzy the morning of the race, and he asked me, ‘You think you can drive this car today?’ I said, ‘Well, hell yeah, I can drive that car.’
“So, I got in the car, started 36th and finished eighth, so it was a big day for us.”
Thus, the start of a successful run at racing for Sterling Marlin, who in 1983, was named Winston Cup Rookie of the Year and twice finished third in the Cup championship points standings.
These days, Marlin, 55, owns a local racing team and still drives at Nashville’s legendary Fairgrounds Speedway, the local track that had Cup Series races through 1984 and where he and his dad were multiple track champions.
He also attends to several of his farms that includes 125 or so head of cattle and plays around with the grandkids. But he’ll always find time to watch Sunday’s race.
“It’s really about the only race I watch all year,” Marlin said. “It’s pretty exciting. They’ve changed the package this year with the cars. The car looks a lot better than the Car of Tomorrow. It looks like it is harder to pass, harder to drive, than it has been, so it should be a pretty interesting race.”
And does watching the Daytona 500, a race he won twice and made news racing over three decades, tug on the yearning to get back out there on the Cup series?
“I missed it when I retired a little bit,” Marlin said. “But it was all the travel. I just get tired of running up and down the road. I still enjoy driving a racecar. That’s a lot of fun.
“A lot of my buddies who I went to school with and helped me on my racecar when they were young, when I was young, we still go and see if we can whip those boys’ butts up there.”
Up there is the Saturday night racing in Nashville at Fairgrounds Speedway, which dodged destruction in a political volleyball with Nashville mayor Karl Dean. He had plans to raze the entire Fairgrounds facility in exchange for a variety of other uses.
That got Marlin and other local drivers of note, like former NASCAR drivers Chad Chaffin and Bobby Hamilton Jr., involved in saving the track where the careers of drivers like the Marlins, Darrell Waltrip, Michael Waltrip and Bobby Hamilton Sr., to name a few, got started.
“It’s the only track within 300 miles where young drivers can learn how to drive,” Marlin said. “It’s a great facility. You can race side-by-side. The place seats 15,000 people.
“You talk to drivers who race there, they love the place. We need to keep it intact.”
From there to now, Marlin is most identified with his Daytona 500 successes. And no sport kicks off a season with its grandest of events likes NASCAR and its Grand American Race.
“It’s just really exciting,” Marlin said. “The fans have been cooped up all winter. It’s the first race of the year. The crews and drivers are raring to go.”