DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Sterling Marlin's track record in restrictor plate races should make him one of the favorites in Saturday night's Pepsi 400 at the Daytona International Speedway.
His four-year winless drought, however, has shuffled him into one of the many underdog roles -- and worse, one of the fan favorites.
"In this sport, everybody loves a loser," he said before the rain-delayed qualifying session Thursday night at the 2.5-mile raceway. "I believe I'd rather they not love me so much. It's a lot more fun winning."
Marlin has three career wins at Daytona and a pair of victories at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. Both racetracks require the use of a restrictor plate on the engine to reduce speeds by about 30 mph for safety reasons.
Although five of his six career victories on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series circuit have come in restrictor plate races like the Pepsi 400, the fact he hasn't won since the 1996 season means he has become little more than a sentimental favorite in one of the biggest races of the year.
"I guess it's human nature to pull for the underdogs and pull against whoever is winning," he said. "Man, we were all Jeff Gordon fans until he won a race. Then it all changed for him."
Marlin said there's a fine line between winning at Daytona and running in a pack with all the other "losers."
"For some reason, you either have really god days or really bad days at Daytona," he said. "There's not a lot of in-betweens. If you're real good, you can run up with the leaders. If you pick your spots right and things work out for you, you can have a great finish and a great day.
"If you're bad, man, there ain't nothing worse. The only thing more thing more frustrating than pulling out to pass and nobody going with you is not being able to hold onto the draft."
Since cars are handicapped under the hood, they rely on aerodynamics to maintain speed. Two or more cars traveling nose-to-tail in the "draft" are faster than a single car because they can better divide the wind resistance.
If a car drops out of line to make a pass and nobody goes with it, the car is likely to drop to the end of the long draft. Passing at Daytona and Talladega now requires groups of cars ganging up on the front-runners.
Time trials originally were scheduled for 8 p.m. Thursday. However, they were delayed by 30 minutes by a series of afternoon showers that moved along the Florida coastline.
In the only practice session leading up to qualifying, Marlin's Chevrolet Monte Carlo was clocked at a woefully slow 182.006 mph. He was 41st fastest among the 46 drivers who practiced.
Ricky Rudd's Ford Taurus was the quickest at 186.447 mph, followed by Johnny Benson's Pontiac Grand Prix in second at 186.054 mph. Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett was third at 186.043 mph, followed by Rusty Wallace (186.039) in fourth, Dave Blaney (185.273) in fifth, Mark Martin (185.006) in sixth, Bill Elliott (184.991) in seventh, Chad Little (184.926) in eighth, Ward Burton (184.813) in ninth and Elliott Sadler (184.687) in 10th.
The quickest Chevrolet was Steve Park in 11th at 184.642 mph.
Marlin's first career Winston Cup Series win came at the 1994 Daytona 500. It was a popular victory in the garage area and in the grandstands. But when he won three times in 1993, his notariety in the garage changed. Fans also found themselves looking for a new underdog to cheer.
"I wasn't really surprised when I won there the first time," he said. "It was pretty neat for my first win to be in the biggest race we run. It was special but not surprising. I just figured it was a matter of time before we won somewhere, and it was just a matter of time before we won at Daytona.
"Tell you what, it is a pretty fickle bunch in that Winston Cup garage. You win that first race, and everybody loves you and they're so happy for you and they've been pulling for you all their lives and daddy must be so proud. Win that second one, and they start thinking differently about you, and you hear the grumbling behind you back."
Sterling Marlin is back to being one of the popular underdogs in the garage area. Everyone smiles and has nothing but kind words for a driver who's become a stranger to Victory Lane.
That, of course, can change Saturday night. Marlin would rather have race trophies than the sympathetic support of the racing community anyway.
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