DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dan Marino benched himself Thursday. He arrived for his team's season opener, recognized his limitations, and got out of the way.
The NFL's all-time leading passer still won't give any quarter when he resumes a tussle of egos with Miami Dolphins' coach Jimmy Johnson this summer. But on this day, Marino happily retreated to the top of a hauler to watch as his new team, a Winston Cup racing operation, put rookie driver Jerry Nadeau of Alpharetta, Ga., in Sunday's Daytona 500.
Nadeau, driving a No. 13 teal and orange Ford Taurus co-owned by Marino and NASCAR veteran Bill Elliott, finished 12th in the second Twin 125-mile qualifying race.
The car will start 26th in the 500, giving Marino a berth in NASCAR's showcase event 12 years after he played in his lone Super Bowl. Considering Marino's NFL history, a Daytona victory would be ironic.
"Personally, I'd rather win the Super Bowl first," Marino said, smiling. "Right now I'm just going to be an observer until I find out what my role will be."
A casual fan for years, Marino joins a growing number of pro athletes and coaches who have made auto racing their playground.
The trailblazer is former Washington Redskins' coach Joe Gibbs, who owns the Pontiac of Daytona 500 pole-sitter Bobby Labonte. Gibbs grew up around fast cars and has a passion for racing. He has applied his people and organizational skills to his new sport, and his success has surprised no one.
Most of the other high-profile competitors who've crossed over have brought less to the table. Joe Montana and Walter Payton are investors in CART Indy-car teams, and Payton has done some driving in celebrity events. Mark Rypien has owned a Busch Series team, and Jim Harbaugh has a piece of an Indy Racing League team. Jerry Glanville, the former Atlanta Falcons coach, has tried his hand at driving.
Ozzie Smith, who accompanied Marino to a luxury suite for part of Thursday's program, is trying to get into the sport. And Julius Erving and Joe Washington are putting together the first minority-owned Winston Cup team in 25 years. They'll start in the Busch Series.
Marino doesn't plan to learn the intricacies of a suspension setup or spend many weekends sitting in traffic at Martinsville or Dover. He is here as a hobbyist and investor. His contribution was to bring sponsor FirstPlus Financial.
Marino's involvement shouldn't be taken as a sign that his retirement is imminent.
"I think football will be a part of my life always," he said. "I'm sure when I'm done playing -- and I don't plan on being done any time soon -- I'll still be involved in football. But it's hard to get an NFL franchise."
Still, it's doubtful that boss Johnson knows how far Marino has gone as a racer already. Take the recent test session at Talledega in which Marino was more than a spectator.
"I had two cars at Talladega," Elliott said, "and I let Dan drive one and follow me around. We ran some laps at around 145 mph, and then, at the end of the day, we ran some more where he got to about 165 mph. I was impressed. I said, `You'll be in this driver's seat in no time."'
Probably not. But Marino confesses: "The adrenalin you get from running 145 mph-plus is something special. I don't think it's quite the same rush I get when I run onto the field on Sunday afternoon, but at least I know what I'm doing when I do that."
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