A man gains an advantage in NASCAR racing. Maybe it's a few extra horsepower, or maybe the planets are aligned in his favor. All he knows is that he can't lose.
Then one day the advantage is gone, and he wonders how it ever was so easy.
Ask Sterling Marlin. He had the golden touch at big and fast Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway from 1994 through 1996. But he isn't contending anywhere in '97, and he can't fathom why entering defense of his Pepsi 400 title at Daytona Beach, Fla. Qualifying for Saturday's race begins today (3 p.m., ESPN2).
"I'm not particularly superstitious," Marlin said. "By the same token, I'm beginning to wonder if we've ticked off a witch doctor somewhere, and every week, he's pulling out the Sterling Marlin doll, grabbing his knitting needles and shoving them things in me. Maybe you can make voodoo dolls out of those die-cast cars, and he's just playing with the thing every week."
A personable Tennessean with a throwback vocabulary full of words like "ain't" and "blowed," Marlin gained a legion of fans with his five victories in a 12-race span at Daytona and Talladega.
He went 0-for-278 in his first 17 part-or full-time years on the circuit. Then, out of the blue, he won the Daytona 500 of all races on a wondrous February 1994 afternoon in which scores of rival crewmen in their myriad of colors descended upon his pit to confer congratulations.
As if to prove there wasn't a stuntman behind the wheel that day, Marlin won the sport's premier race again in 1995 in his bright yellow, No. 4 Morgan-McClure Motorsports Chevy.
Marlin was good almost everywhere in '95, winning three races, posting 23 top 10s and settling into third place behind Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt for the championship.
Now, that photograph is starting to fade.
After finishing eighth in the standings last year, including the Pepsi 400 win at Daytona, Marlin has posted only one top-five finish this year - a fifth in the Daytona 500 41/2 months ago. Since then, he has provided little more than background scenery for Gordon, Terry Labonte and the Fords of Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett and occasionally Rusty Wallace.
Fifteen races into the 32-race schedule, the son of colorful ex-driver Coo Coo Marlin is buried in 19th place in the point standings.
During a 10-race stretch beginning with the Feb. 23 Goodwrench 400 at Rockingham, N.C., and running through the May 25 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, Marlin placed 19th or worse nine times. Crew chief Tim Brewer finally resigned after the team's 17th-place finish at Michigan June 15, and, under interim crew chief Robert Larkin, Marlin finished 36th with engine failure June 22 at California.
"Our season has been one of turmoil and disappointment," said a frustrated Larry McClure, team owner and manager.
Adjusting to the departure of respected crew chief Tony Glover after last season and overcoming the disadvantage most Chevy drivers other than Gordon have had against the Fords this year has been difficult.
Rumors around NASCAR after last month's 40th-place finish at Charlotte had Marlin going everywhere from Yates Racing to his own team for 1998.
"As far as I know I'm going to drive the 4 car (next year)," Marlin said recently. "There have been a lot of rumors. When you don't win, people think you're going to leave."
McClure said he and Marlin had a "clearing of the air" on some issues after the Charlotte race, and he expects the driver back.
Marlin, who turns 40 June 30 , spends less time worrying about that when he's home with his wife, Paula, and his two children, 16-year-old Steadman and 7-year-old Sutherlin, in his native Columbia, Tenn.
If there is one driver on the circuit who has stayed connected to his roots, it's Marlin. He still lives on family-owned land, among the farm tractors and the tobacco fields of his childhood. A new house that he helped construct is a short jog away from where Coo Coo's cattle graze.
For some reason, humility comes naturally for Marlin. He is the 10th-winningest driver in history with nearly $10 million in earnings, yet carries himself like a $40,000-a-year fabricator.
What doesn't come natural after you've won the Daytona 500 twice is losing.
"We were there in '95, (contending) week in and week out and winning races," Marlin said. "Somehow, we've got to get back to that point."
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