CONCORD, N.C. - While the NASCAR Winston Cup Series has become obsessed with reaching out to the MTV crowd, Sterling Marlin continues to make sure it doesn't forget its storied past.
No matter how many brash and talented youngsters find their way into top-notch rides, the tobacco farmer with the thick Southern drawl is content with his simple, unassuming way of doing business.
The focus in stock car racing may be youth, but the leader of the Winston Cup Series point standings is a 44 year-old father of two who never has, and never plans to jump into a mosh pit after a victory.
The newest generation of drivers has GQ looks and a Madison Avenue polish. Marlin drinks his liquor from a paper cup like his father, a former driver named Coo Coo, and he can't escape the fractured grammar and limited vocabulary of his Deep South roots.
He easily could have won the first two races of the year, but was caught by NASCAR's inconsistent policies regarding red flags.
The sanctioning body stopped the Daytona 500 with six laps to go to clean up a crash, and Marlin, the leader, was caught pulling the fender away from his left-front tire during the delay. The stop and go penalty for illegally working on his car relegated him to an eighth-place finish. If the race had finished under caution, he probably would have won.
A week later at Rockingham, N.C., Marlin was second behind Matt Kenseth with 11 laps remaining when NASCAR decided not to throw the red flag after a crash. The race finished under caution, and if it had been stopped and re-started, he would have had the chance to win the race.
Marlin returned the week after that and won at Las Vegas. While the 30-and-younger crowd has combined to win seven of the first 11 races, Marlin has been in firm command of the point standings since the second race.
"I'm just glad to be in a car that's real competitive week in and week out," Marlin said as he prepared for Saturday's The Winston all-star race at the Lowe's Motor Speedway. "The young guys are really coming on good. Ryan Newman, I knew he was going to be good last year. Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch and them guys are really going good. Us old guys are going to have to step it up a little bit, but we'll try to hold our own with them.
"I'm 44, so I still feel young. I'll take them on in football anytime."
If he maintains his lead through the end of the season, he will be the third-oldest champion in Winston Cup Series history.
Marlin leads the standings by 132 points. That's a big cushion after just 11 races, and it allows for a greater margin of error down the road. However, those who are chasing him, particularly second-place Kenseth and third-place Busch, aren't expecting any major mistakes from a driver whose been on the circuit since 1976 - before Kenseth was in kindergarten and Busch was born.
"Those guys (on Marlin's team) have got it going," Kenseth said. "They aren't making any mistakes."
Marlin has eight top-10 finishes in 11 starts. He's been running at the end of every race this year, and his worst finish is 19th at Bristol, Tenn. Dating back to 2001, Marlin has 11 top-10 finishes in his last 14 races.
"Going into this season, I felt like we had a real shot at winning the championship," Marlin said. "We're just trying to race week to week. We'll focus on winning the race, and if we can't win the race, we'll try to pull out a top five. If we can't get a top five, we'll try to pull out a top 10. That's the approach I'm taking."
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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