Once they were all over the place. You couldn't swing a lug
wrench in a Winston Cup garage without hitting one in the
butt--a butt most likely covered by Wranglers. Once ubiquitous
on the NASCAR circuit, these drawlers are now as hard to find as
a tasteful racing T-shirt. The good ol' boy driver, it seems,
has gone the way of the buffalo.
These days, everywhere you turn there's a hotshot kid from north
of the Mason-Dixon Line who's being touted as the next big
thing--if he isn't it already. Reigning Winston Cup champ Jeff
Gordon is from Indiana by way of California. Last year's rookie
of the year, Kevin Harvick, is from California, as is one of
this year's front-runners for that honor, Jimmie Johnson. Matt
Kenseth of Wisconsin won the rookie crown two years ago, and
Tony Stewart got it the year before that. He hails from Indiana.
Aside from their driving ability, their geographical roots and
their youth, these kids have one other thing in common: They are
all chasing the same guy, a member of the old guard who refuses
to go away. He's Sterling Marlin, he's a terrific driver, he's
44 years old, and he could keep Jeff Foxworthy scribbling notes
to himself on the back of cocktail napkins for months to come.
(If it sounds like you were named after the biggest fish a
family member ever caught, you might be a redneck....)
After a ninth-place finish in the Atlanta 500 on Sunday, the
first race all season in which he didn't have a chance to win in
the last five laps, Marlin has a 74-point lead over 24-year-old
rookie Ryan Newman, a native of South Bend. For Marlin, his
success this year and the goodwill it's engendering are a
blessed relief from his long dark ride in 2001. For no matter
how well he raced last season--and he raced better than he ever
had before--Marlin couldn't make people talk about anything
other than what happened on Feb. 18. In the final turn of the
Daytona 500, the back of Dale Earnhardt's GM Goodwrench Chevy
and the front of Marlin's Coors Light Dodge touched ever so
gently. The contact sent Earnhardt's car up the banking and into
the wall, killing him instantly. Wrecks are routinely written
off as "one of those racing deals" by NASCAR folk, but Earnhardt
was Earnhardt, so not everyone was willing to let this one
slide. Video of the crash was dissected as if it were the
Zapruder film, and for some fans at least, Marlin's Silver
Bullet somehow became the magic bullet.
Marlin returned to his home in Columbia, Tenn., flipped on the
TV and was shocked at what he was hearing. "Some of these media
guys who couldn't spell driveshaft, I walk in home after the
race and here they're saying that I wrecked Earnhardt and put
him in the wall, which is the furthest thing from the truth," he
says. Marlin's home number is unlisted, but that didn't stop
some zealots. They started faxing death threats to his race shop.
The threats subsided when Dale Earnhardt Jr. declared such
behavior from his late father's fans "unacceptable" a few days
later. Dale Jr.'s words didn't make the story go away, though.
The elder Earnhardt's death came up all the time, even from
people trying to help Marlin forget it. "I had Earnhardt fans
coming through my autograph lines telling me it wasn't my fault,"
Marlin did his best to put the constant reminders aside and
drive. "Sterling, in his eyes, realized he didn't do anything
wrong," says Tony Glover, Marlin's manager and friend for a
quarter century. "The fans threatening him, that was a
distraction, but as far as the way he drove the race car, it
made no difference." In fact, Marlin drove improbably well,
winning two races and finishing a career-best third in the
Winston Cup points race at the tender age of 43.
That success has carried over to this year. With a little luck
in February, Marlin could have started his season with three
straight wins. A bent right front fender--and his subsequent
illegal foray onto the track to fix it during a red-flag
stoppage--cost him the lead with five laps left in the Daytona
500. The following week he finished second at Rockingham after
NASCAR officials let the Subway 400 finish under caution,
depriving Marlin of a last chance to catch the winner, Kenseth.
He finally won in Las Vegas the following week. "The car I think
you're going to see near the top of the standings continuously,
and he's got a heck of a jump on the field, is the 40 car," says
Jimmy Makar, crew chief for 2000 Winston Cup champ Bobby
Labonte, referring to Marlin's Dodge. "That's the guy we're
going to be chasing most of the year, if Sterling and his crew
don't shoot themselves in the foot."
That's not likely. Marlin has waited too long for this chance to
squander it. "It just takes a long time to get with a good team
and get yourself where you can get equipment that can win
races," he says.
It has taken Marlin a long time, but at least he has spent it
being colorful. He got his start in racing as a 12-year-old,
working on the cars that his father, Coo Coo, drove. (If one of
your parents is named Coo Coo--and it's not your mother--you
might be....) Coo Coo appeared in 164 NASCAR races without a
win, primarily because his team lacked a certain amount of
professionalism. The team was, essentially, Coo Coo and Sterling
working in a 500-square-foot shop on the 600-acre family farm in
Columbia. When he got a little older, Sterling would hop into a
Chevrolet truck with his older cousin David and go wherever Coo
Coo was racing. "David would drive awhile, then he'd get tired,"
says Marlin. "I didn't have a license, but he'd let me drive at
night. We'd take a Pepsi bottle and wedge it onto the
accelerator, like a cruise control. That accelerator was real
hard to mash."
If they had to stop? "We just kicked the bottle out."
Sterling started driving when he was about 12, in a car far less
ornate than his current ride, a shiny silver Dodge adorned with
the logos and colors of such sponsors as Coors Light, the band
KISS and his buddies Brooks and Dunn. (If you know which one is
Brooks and which one is Dunn, you might be....) Coo Coo had
given Sterling about an acre of farmland to work for himself,
and with the money he made selling the tobacco he grew, he
bought a 1957 Nash Metropolitan for $50.
Marlin drove in his first Winston Cup race in 1976, but he
didn't get a full-time ride until '83, when he was 26. For the
next 17 years he enjoyed a decent career--he won five times,
including back-to-back Daytona 500 victories in '94 and '95--but
it wasn't until midway through the 2000 season that things
really picked up. That's when his car owner, Felix Sabates, sold
an 80% interest in the Sabates team to Chip Ganassi. Ganassi had
won four consecutive CART championships as an owner before
deciding to try his luck with stock cars, and one of his first
moves was to appoint Andy Graves, who had been working for his
CART operation, to be his NASCAR team manager along with Glover.
(The Ganassi team's second car is driven by Jimmy Spencer.)
Ganassi gave the two men carte blanche to make whatever moves
they felt necessary.
The first task Graves undertook was to evaluate the guys behind
the wheel. Though just 32, he had worked for NASCAR powerhouse
Hendrick Motorsports from 1990 through '99 and had seen Marlin in
action. "I always knew him as a good racer," says Graves, "but in
all honesty I never really thought of him as more than a guy who
could win a race here or there."
Graves got a better idea of Marlin's talent during their first
race together. At Michigan International Speedway in June 2000,
Marlin qualified 39th but finished 10th, a pretty good indication
that he could get the most out of his equipment. "After working
with Sterling for a month, I told Chip we probably needed to sign
him up to a pretty long-term contract," says Graves. He might
have come to that conclusion even quicker had he not required a
decoder ring to understand Marlin. "He's got a language all his
own, is probably the best way to put it," says Graves, who grew
up in Syracuse, N.Y. "A trend the last couple of years is to run
more high-rebound shocks to get the car sucked down out of the
air. Sterling calls them 'hippity-hop shocks,' so when he first
told me we needed to try those hippity-hop shocks, I didn't have
a clue what the hell he was talking about. But once you start
learning what he means, he's always spot on. Whenever we gave him
what he was asking for, it always turned out real well."
Another of Graves's favorite Sterlingisms is often heard when
Marlin carries too much speed into a corner. "Well," Marlin
radios in, "I just drove in there like a drunk going to the
liquor store." It's not the most PC thing to say, but as Graves
says, "Sterling doesn't worry about being politically correct. He
just likes to have a good time."
Sometimes having a good time means hanging out with his pal Mark
Smith on the farm, doing a little, as Smith says, "messing around
on bulldozers." Sometimes having a good time means taking a metal
detector and searching farms and fields in central Tennessee for
Civil War artifacts. (Marlin's Civil War jones is well known
among NASCAR fans. At an autograph session before the race in
Atlanta a fan asked Marlin to sign his name on a Confederate
bullet the man had found in central Georgia.)
If having a good time should entail hanging out in the RV lot at
the Atlanta Motor Speedway eating shrimp and crawfish and
drinking beer with his pals, then so be it. And if one of those
pals should produce a mason jar filled with various fruits
soaking in authentic North Carolina moonshine, then that's fine
too. And if a visiting Yankee should be given his first taste of
'shine and then be gently ribbed as he winces while downing his
first surprisingly smooth swallows, then that's great. One thing
you can count on is that through it all, Marlin won't alter his
behavior based on who's around. "You gotta be who you are," says
Marlin. "You can't be one way, and then when a camera comes up do
a 180-degree turnaround."
Glover has known that about Marlin for years. "He might be one of
the last good ol' boys," says Glover. "He's been the same since I
met him 25 years ago."
Except that he drives a whole lot faster these days.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY NIGEL KINRADE Hot seat Blamed for Earnhardt's fatal crash last year, Marlin now has the fans' support and the lead in the Winston Cup standings.
COLOR PHOTO: STUART TANNEHILL/FLORIDA TIMES-UNION/AP Return to fender Marlin's illegal dent-fixing dash with five laps left in the Daytona 500 cost him the lead and probably the race.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN EMERSON Raised to race Sterling started as a mechanic for Coo Coo (right). He has made hay this season with a win in Las Vegas.
COLOR PHOTO: MARK J. TERRILL/AP [See caption above]
"I HAD EARNHARDT FANS COMING THROUGH MY AUTOGRAPH LINES TELLING
ME THE CRASH WASN'T MY FAULT," SAYS MARLIN.
"STERLING DOESN'T WORRY ABOUT BEING POLITICALLY CORRECT," SAYS
MANAGER GRAVES. "HE JUST LIKES TO HAVE A GOOD TIME."