not last years Champion, but the likes of Ryan Newman
and Jimmie Johnson that are in pursuit of Marlin.
Dodge / Allsport
It used to be regarded as an insult if someone were to say that a Winston Cup driver had a 99-point lead over a rookie. But as the season
bruises into Bristol for the sixth stop on the tour, the chase
for the championship is becoming a battle between the crafty veteran Sterling Marlin and a group of not-quite-thirty-somethings.
This year, with the outstanding performance of Ryan Newman and other young drivers, that 99-point lead is quite an accomplishment.
After Sunday's race in Darlington, I kept staring at the point standings. Was I seeing things? Were there actually two rookies in the top five? Indeed I was not hallucinating as Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson were in second and fifth place respectively.
As they did with Jeff Gordon a few years back, fans will say that once placed on a top team in a top car, any driver can be competitive. Forget about being just competitive, both Newman and Johnson have exploded out of the blocks, and no matter how much horsepower you have, you need talent and patience to survive at Darlington. They didn't just survive the Lady in Black - they excelled.
As good as these young drivers are, there's a lot they can learn from someone who's been around racing as long as Sterling Marlin has. A second generation Winston Cup driver, Sterling has been competing in this series since 1976. By comparison, Ryan Newman wasn't even born until 1977!
Marlin has seen his share of race teams during his career. He started out with a few trial runs on a team owned by his dad Coo Coo. After a few years of part time status, he moved to a full-time position with teams owned by the likes of Billy Hagan, Junior Johnson, Stavola Brothers and Morgan-McClure.
has become one of the most consistent drivers on the
Winston Cup tour.
Dodge / Allsport
From 1987 to 1996, Sterling never finished below 15th in the point standings. His first win came dramatically at Daytona in 1994. A year later, he earned three trips to Victory Lane and a 3rd place finish in the points. His racing career seemed to be building momentum in Morgan-McClure's no. 4 Kodak car.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. In 1997, Marlin slipped to a 25th place finish in points, with only six top-ten finishes and no wins. Marlin left the team and signed with Felix Sabates to drive for the Sabco team. For the next three years, Sterling had mixed results and no return trips to the winner's circle. Many pessimistic fans said Marlin was just getting too old to compete anymore.
Enter Chip Ganassi, the man who turns everything into racing gold. Ganassi helped issue in the return of Dodge to Winston Cup racing in 2001. And what a return it was. Thwarting all the pessimists, Sterling and the no. 40 Coors Light Dodge were able to compete for the championship up until the last month of the season. Marlin ended up 3rd in points, while taking home Dodge's first win since 1977 at Michigan and another victory at Charlotte. As a model of consistency, Marlin seemed to be in that front pack of cars in every race during last season, but can he continue the run.
"I'm a little surprised with our streak right now," said Marlin. "Yes and no, I guess. I knew we were going to run good with the way we finished last season. I'm surprised a little with all the good luck we've had. We've had good cars except at Atlanta, and I think we could have won two other races with a little luck. Me and Glover and Lee McCall (crew chief) are working together well. We put our heads together on the chassis and decide what we're going to do. Last year we might have been satisfied with a fifth-place car, but this year, like at Darlington, we did some stuff we'd never tried before and it worked."
last year at Sears Point Raceway, he finished in
Mike Veglia / MSV
Does Sterling have what it takes to bring home his first championship in his 26th season of Winston Cup competition? Marlin's best performances have traditionally been on superspeedways. Many claim that he is a one-dimensional driver and his Achilles heel is the short tracks and road courses. He has publicly decried the need for road courses in stock car racing. However, his best finish in the 2000 season was a runner up to Jeff Gordon at Sears Point. And last season, he pulled in three top-ten finishes on short tracks. In other words, don't count on Bristol or Watkins Glen knocking Sterling out of the championship hunt.
"It'd be nice to come through Bristol with another top 10 and then get a weekend off before going to Texas," commented Marlin. "There's still plenty of racing left, and
it's way too early to talk about points. It's nice to have the lead, but 99 points don't mean much. Heck, that could be wiped out before the Bristol race is half over. We're just going to try to take it smart and bide our time and hopefully we'll be around at the end to give 'em a run for their money."
Marlin has already proved that 2001 was no fluke, and that he is not a one hit wonder. The Ganassi Coors Light team has made a profound statement to the rest of the field with his two victories in the first five weeks. The combination of an owner who wins anywhere he competes, and a veteran driver that knows how to win, could be lethal to the competition in 2002. Hotshot rookie or not, it seems that everyone will be seeing a lot of the no. 40 Coors Light rear bumper this year.
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