Marlin wins Daytona 500

February 21, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA — DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Sterling Marlin, nicknamed Chicken Snake, and his daddy, Coo Coo, real name Clifton, have been trying to win the Daytona 500 for a total of 27 years.

Yesterday, with more than 150,000 race fans shoe-horned into Daytona International Speedway, Sterling Marlin did it.

It was his 13th try.

"I always knew I could win if I ever got to the right team," said the 36-year-old.

"I always knew he could win. I just knew it," said the 62-year-old father, who single-handedly operates a 1,400-acre beef farm.

"I've told him a lot of times, he better make it driving cars, because he sure ain't no farmer. He don't know nothing about farming."

This is the third year in a row that a former stock car driver has seen his son win this race.

And everyone has provided an emotional twist.

When Davey Allison won in 1992, former Winston Cup champion Bobby Allison, who was recovering from head injuries that ended his career and cost him many of his memories, couldn't hold back the tears.

When Dale Jarrett won last year, his father, Ned, also a former Winston Cup champion, called the race from the CBS broadcast booth and rejoiced in his son's success in a race he had never won.

Yesterday, when Sterling Marlin beat former 500 winner Ernie Irvan to the finish line by .23 of a second, Coo Coo Marlin, who spent his 14-year Winston Cup career unsponsored and winless, stood by, quietly relishing his son's victory.

Together, Sterling and Coo Coo Marlin competed in 443 Winston Cup races before winning on the 444th try.

Sterling averaged 156.931 mph in his yellow Kodak Chevrolet with the No. 4 on its side.

"I almost won here in 1974 as an independent [unsponsored driver]," said Coo Coo Marlin, who fielded his own race teams out of a little tin garage behind his farm house. "But they didn't want no little guy to win. I had made my last pit stop and had a half-lap lead with 20 laps to go, when they black-flagged me [forcing an extra pit stop]. They said I had a loose lug nut. But there were no loose lug nuts. There wasn't anything wrong. Richard Petty won the race. They just didn't want a little guy to win it."

The Marlins are from near Columbia, Tenn. They have had their share of successes on the smaller racing circuits.

Sterling won short track championships at Nashville Speedway, while driving for his dad from 1980 through 1982. Then he moved pTC the Winston Cup circuit.

Since then he has had nine second-place finishes, including one here in 1991, in his first race for Junior Johnson.

"I thought if I could have stayed with Junior, we could have become a good, winning team," said Marlin, who drove two years for the Johnson team and is the only driver who has worked for Junior Johnson and not won a race. "But there was a lot of turmoil there. No one ever fired me or told me they were thinking about firing me. But it became clear it wasn't working then."

Yesterday, everything worked for Marlin. After spending the first 100 miles getting the handling right, he just moved up with the front-runners and answered the door when opportunity knocked.

When front-runners Dale Earnhardt, Irvan, Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin pitted under caution to top off their fuel tanks with 59 laps to go, Marlin stayed out on the race track.

"I radioed in to see if they wanted me to pit," said Marlin. "But Tony [Glover, crew chief] said we had enough to go to the finish. I didn't worry any more about it."

For the rest of the field, going those 147.5 miles was a gamble. Lake Speed, running fifth, ran out of gas with three laps left and finished 14th, and Martin, who was in third, ran out with two laps left and finished 13th.

But Irvan, in his Havoline Ford,stayed glued to the back of Marlin's bumper to the finish.

"We won because we could run the car wide-open all the way around the track," said Marlin, whose car ran out of gas while driving down pit road on the way to victory lane. "On that last lap, I just told myself this is a short track. This is Nashville on a Saturday night. I said, 'Boy, you're leading. You're doing good.' And I held the car low all the way so Ernie couldn't make a move."

At the start of last season, it was Irvan who was driving the Kodak car owned by Morgan-McClure. But when car owner Robert Yates asked him if he was interested in taking the Havoline seat opened up by the death of Davey Allison last April, Irvan bolted.

He bought his way out of the Kodak ride last fall, and the McClure team has refused to speak to the Havoline team since.

Yesterday, Yates offered his congratulations and said he hopes Larry McClure "will accept it and that that team will talk to me again."

And McClure said he'd accept but stopped short of letting bygones be bygones.

"Right now, I'll accept that congratulations," McClure said. "We've got to work together and live together. Some of us don't like each other, and you don't have to. But you have to get along."

It was the only sour note of the day, and one that seemed to escape Marlin.

"But I really didn't think about this having been Ernie's team until after the race was over," he said.

After running 278 Winston Cup races without a victory, Marlin was just happy that Irvan's former team is his.

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