The only major stock car race Dale Earnhardt just can't win is the only one Sterling Marlin can.
On Sunday the otherwise hard-knocks Marlin won his second consecutive Daytona 500, this being only the second NASCAR Winston Cup victory of his 19-year career. And Earnhardt, roundly regarded as NASCAR's best driver, with 63 career wins and seven season championships, remained winless in NASCAR's most hallowed event, suffering his 17th straight Daytona 500 loss in even worse than his usual heart-crushing fashion.
Earnhardt finished second, falling a scant .61 of a second short of pulling off what would have been the most thrilling come-from-behind victory in the 37 runnings of the event.
"Maybe after I retire, he can win it then," said Marlin, who had been miffed for days after hearing that members of Earnhardt's team had implied that Marlin wasn't smart enough to repeat his 1994 shocker. And indeed, despite his snakebit history in the race, Earnhardt had been considered the favorite. But as he ruefully said afterward, "This is the Daytona 500. I ain't supposed to win the damn thing."
He didn't win it this time because Marlin and his Morgan-McClure Chevrolet team made no mistakes—not a bobble all race long in the pits or on the track, even after a one-hour-and-47-minute rain delay. Marlin never backed down, not even in the face of Earnhardt's magnificent onslaught in the final 11 laps.
After the 10th and final caution period ended on the 189th of the 200 laps around Daytona International Speedway, Marlin was leading, and Earnhardt was running a seemingly hopeless 14th. Minutes earlier Earnhardt had pitted for four new tires while Marlin had chosen not to pit under the caution. Just at the ripest moment for choking, Marlin and his crew chief, Tony Glover, had gone their calmest.
"I said over the radio, 'Well, what you wanna do?' " Marlin drawled in recollection. "Glover said, 'Well, let's just stay out.' "
Then the storm: Earnhardt made up 12 positions in eight laps, moving into second with three laps remaining. Usually such things happen only in bad racing movies, but Earnhardt darted, plunged, slithered and passed, with some drafting help down the straightaways from Jeff Gordon.
While the crowd of 175,000 stood and roared, Glover drawled softly on the radio, "You better go—he's comin'."
After about seven breathtaking minutes of comeback driving, Earnhardt was on Marlin's bumper, ready to break his Daytona 500 drought in truly spectacular fashion.
But Marlin couldn't—wouldn't—be passed.
"I was better than Sterling through the corners," said Earnhardt, "but he was better than I was down the straightaways."
Why was that? Marlin's Monte Carlo lent a mysterious banshee wail, more a la Indy Cars than stock cars—wheeee-ow—to the race's thunder, perhaps owing to streamlined exhaust pipes that might have given Marlin an aerodynamic edge down the straights. Marlin's engine builder, Runt Pittman, was when asked about the source of the sound.
"Y'all might not need to know," Pittman said to reporters. "It seemed to work pretty good. Yup, it seemed to work pretty good."
Entering the final lap in a 190-mph dogfight with the estimable Earnhardt and under the most ponderous pressure NASCAR can put on a driver, Marlin heard Glover say, "First'un back, wins."
After that, said Marlin, "I barely had to crack the throttle through [Turns] 1 and 2. He got close to me down the back straightaway. Once I saw he couldn't get beside me in 3 and 4, I knew we had him."
And at that moment, a point at which drivers historically shriek with joy into their microphones to an ecstatic crew, Marlin said matter-of-factly, "We got him."
In Earnhardt's long line of Daytona 500 heartbreaks, dating back to 1979, this was his most crushing loss since 1990, when he dominated for 499 miles before a cut tire cost him the race. In that year and this, it was over for him in the same spot, at the end of the backstretch.
Earnhardt has had other, far less nagging, glitches in his career. He has never won on a road course, and he has yet to win NASCAR's two newest races, the two-year-old event at New Hampshire International Speedway and the one-year-old Brickyard 400 for stock cars at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But the big one, the biggest one, just won't come, even though he has twice won Daytona's summer race, the Pepsi 400.
Earlier during Speed Week, Earnhardt, as usual, won every preliminary race he entered: the Feb. 12 Busch Clash, a 125-mile qualifying race last Thursday and the International Race of Champions last Friday. In all, he has won 26 races at Daytona.
No sooner did Earnhardt suffer his latest near miss in the 500 than his car's owner, Richard Childress, walked down the pit road and embraced Larry McClure, the owner of Marlin's car, long and hard.
"We wanted to win that thing with all our hearts," Childress told McClure, "but y'all worked as hard as anybody."
Work they had. The Morgan-McClure team traditionally focuses more on the Daytona 500 than on other races. McClure has now won three of the last five, the first coming in 1991 with Ernie Irvan as driver.
"This was not really a surprise to us," said McClure on Sunday. "This is what we prepared for all winter [during off-season development and testing]."
So there was credence to Marlin's claim that "Dale Earnhardt, or anybody else, could have won this race in my car." Still, it helped that Sterling Marlin, humble journeyman, age 37, from Columbia, Tenn., made no mistakes at all. He led the most laps, 105, and won the most money, $300,460.
What would he say to doubters?
Nothing needed. Rather it is Earnhardt who has to keep explaining: "This is the Daytona 500. I ain't supposed to win the damn thing."
Marlin exulted with daughter Sutherlin while Earnhardt (below) suffered another heartbreaker.
Joe Nemechek's race ended when his Chevy had a brush with the infield wall on the ninth lap.
Rusty Wallace was in the middle of the pack until he ran into trouble, and the wall, on the 159th lap.