TALLADEGA, Ala. - As crazy as the race for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship has been this year, it would be fitting if the best driver and the best team are from two different garages.
With Sterling Marlin on the sidelines for the rest of the year with a broken neck, it's entirely possible his team could win the car owner's championship while somebody from another team win the driver's championship.
In fact, in a year where the top-nine drivers in the standings collectively have failed to finish more races (25) than they've won (19), it may be fitting two different teams be represented at the champion's table during the Winston Cup Banquet.
"We're still in a battle, too," Marlin said Friday during a visit at the Talladega Superspeedway, where qualifying for Sunday's EA Sports 500 was rained out. "The car is. I think we're (121) something points out in fifth, and it's not over until it's over."
Marlin led the point standings for 25 of the first 29 races. He crashed hard last Sunday at Kansas to drop to fifth in the rankings, and two days later doctors found a break in his second vertebrae. He could have driven in the final seven races - at a risk of paralysis if he was in another crash - and gone through surgery in the off-season, but he decided to let it heal naturally.
He will be replaced with NASCAR Busch Series driver Jamie McMurray in six races. Another driver will be hired for the short-track race at Martinsville, Va., on Oct. 20 while competes in a Busch Series race at Memphis during the same weekend.
All the while, his car owners, Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates, will continue to garner points toward the championship. They are fifth heading into Sunday's race.
With a late thunderstorm washing out qualifying on Friday at Talladega, the field of 43 was set by the car owner standings. That means McMurray will make his Winston Cup debut from fifth place on the starting grid.
Points leader Jimmie Johnson, a rookie, will be on the pole.
"The fitting way (for the championship to be decided) would be for a rookie to win the title," Johnson said of a fete that would be historic on the stock car circuit. "But the possibility exists (of a split championship). Crazy things have happened all year long."
Mark Martin will be second on Sunday (1 p.m., NBC), followed by Tony Stewart in third, Jeff Gordon in fourth, McMurray in fifth, Rusty Wallace in sixth, Ryan Newman in seventh, Matt Kenseth in eighth, Bill Elliott in ninth and Ricky Rudd in 10th.
The top nine drivers are separated by just 201 points in the standings.
None of the top-nine drivers have been able to assert themselves in the championship race. The two drivers with the most top-10 finishes, for example, are rookies - Johnson and Newman.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.