WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) — After blowing an engine in practice and another while qualifying, Sterling Marlin was more than ready to say goodbye to Watkins Glen International. And when he was caught up in a multicar crash late in Sunday’s road race at The Glen and finished 39th in the 43-car field, the despair sank to a new low.
“I hate it for MB2 Motorsports,” said the 49-year-old Marlin, in his first year driving the No. 14 Waste Management Chevrolet for team owner Bobby Ginn. “I had a decent car, but it would be nice if they’d put Rockingham right in this place right here.”
The result left Marlin’s team teetering on the brink of falling out of the top 35 in owner points — his team sits 35th, just 16 points ahead of Ray Evernham’s No. 19 car. That’s a big deal because anybody outside the top 35 is not guaranteed a starting spot each week.
“It’s aggravating,” said Marlin, who has just one top-10 finish and five DNFs this season and dislikes road racing as much as any of the drivers who don’t do so well turning right. “It takes a whole lot of luck and a good race team to compete at this level.”
Just four years ago, Marlin had that special team driving the Coors Light Dodge for Chip Ganassi Racing, and it showed on the track. After finishing third in points the previous year for the second time in his career, Marlin led the points race for 25 consecutive weeks in 2002 and gave Ganassi a real shot at winning his first Cup title.
“Nobody really thought we could do it. Week in and week out we’d run top five, top 10 no problem,” said Marlin, who has 10 victories in his Cup career. “We ran so good. It was pretty neat for my dad. He didn’t really say a whole lot about it. He just stayed kind of quiet, and I was wanting us to win it bad.”
For more than six months, Marlin was the man to beat. He kept four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and eventual champion Tony Stewart in his rearview mirror with his consistency, posting two wins, eight top fives, and 14 top 10s.
Then the season began to unravel at Richmond. He was involved in an early crash with teammate Jimmy Spencer and finished last. Marlin was hurt but ignored the pain in his neck.The only time an injury had kept him out of the seat was a burn he had in a crash at Bristol.
“Somebody wrecked going into Turn 3,” said Marlin, the 1983 Cup rookie of the year. “I checked up, somebody popped me in the back end, barely touched me, and I went down across the apron and more or less hit the wall head-on. That was the start of it.”
Marlin left Richmond with a nine-point lead over Martin, but consecutive finishes of 21st at Loudon and Dover dropped him to fourth as the circuit headed for Kansas in early September. He qualified seventh for the Protection One 400, but another head-on crash into a barrier ended his season after 29 races and his chase for that elusive championship.
“The wreck I didn’t think was as bad as Richmond,” Marlin said. “Didn’t even know I was hurt.”
He did two days later.
“I was home cleaning some property and (car co-owner) Felix (Sabates) called and said, ’Man, what are you doing?”’ Marlin recalled, smiling. “I told him, and he said, ’Don’t move, you’ve got a broken neck.’ I said, ’OK.’
“It was all over then. I was disappointed because we were coming back,” he said. “We had some good tracks coming up and had found some stuff in testing. We had lost a little bit at midseason. We were still running good, but we really weren’t the dominant car like we had been earlier. Then I got hurt. That’s just part of it.”
Marlin was relegated to cheerleader status as Jamie McMurray finished the season in his place.
“It was a tremendous disappointment, probably one of the biggest I’ve ever been a part of,” said Tony Glover, Marlin’s crew chief at the time and longtime friend. “You’ll never know. We were coming into our strongest part of the season. We were certainly looking forward to the challenge. We were never given a chance to finish the book, I guess you’d say.”
“What hurt was he was leading the points and he had to win,” Spencer said. “Sometimes, you only get one shot at a championship. That might have been his only shot.”
Still, because the team had done so well before his injury, Marlin looked forward with great anticipation to the next season.
“I figured I’d just go to 2003 and come back and kick butt again,” said Marlin, who won the 1994 Daytona 500 for his first career victory, beating Ernie Irvan after finishing second to Irvan the previous two years. “Then 2003 came along. We had some good runs, but we had some mechanical failures, just couldn’t ever get the momentum back. We just never had the luck we had in 2002.”
It’s been a year since Sterling’s dad, Coo Coo, died. And you can see in his eyes how much he misses his father. Sterling got his start as a pit crew member for his dad, a farmer who also raced at NASCAR’s top level from 1966-80, and always has credited the toughness he learned from Coo Coo for his success.
Although Marlin has earned more than $39 million in 697 starts, he still maintains the family farm in Tennessee. He has to.
“I promised dad I’d take care of the farm,” he said. “I’m trying to do it.”
Marlin, who hopes to bring his son Steadman through the ranks of NASCAR, said he would race a full schedule next year but hasn’t thought beyond that.
“The travel’s getting old,” he said. “It just takes so much time. I’ve been doing it since I was 15, so I’ve been doing it a while.”