Lanes toward title suddenly merge for 44-year-old Marlin

Joining Ganassi, McCall has made all difference

Auto Racing

May 18, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Sterling Marlin is a simple man who loves simple things. He's a race-car driver. Comes from a family of race-car drivers. His daddy, Coo Coo, raced cars ever since Sterling can remember.

He lives on a 600-acre farm outside of Columbia, Tenn., that he works himself, and says he couldn't stand city living, with all the noise and stuff.

He speaks in a soft Tennessee drawl. It misleads some people into thinking he is one-dimensional and, for about four years, it added to the impression that he might not be that interested in big achievements.

He went from 1997 to 2000 without a NASCAR victory, registering just five top-five finishes during that time. It took car owner Chip Ganassi's appearance in Winston Cup last year to uncover the fact that Marlin possessed a lion's heart.

Until Ganassi gave him a top-of-the-line Dodge with a crew chief he could communicate with, no one understood that, in this age of youthful, college-educated drivers from the North and West, Marlin was a throwback to another time.

With the youth movement under way, the Winston Cup tradition of a series dominated by 40-somethings might have been forgotten. But, at age 44, Marlin is leading the series points race and is devoted to winning the Winston Cup.

He is southern-born, with an appreciation for the history of his country and his sport.

"I always loved history in school," Marlin said. "And, where I live, in the Civil War a lot went on around my house and up in Franklin [Tenn.] and down here in [Pulaski]. They camped and fought all along the main road down here."

Marlin relates this with enthusiasm. He recalls how he and a friend went relic hunting for the first time about 12 years ago "and right off the bat we found some bullets and stuff.

"It kind of intrigued me because it was something that's been in the ground 130 something years. You pick something up in your hand that's been in the ground that long, it's pretty neat that you're the first one to pick it up."

He's been to Gettysburg and Chickamauga (Tenn.) and he would like to see Sharpsburg and Manassas, but his racing commitments get in the way.

This season, that has meant the pursuit of the Winston Cup title. Last season, Marlin raced to a third-place finish in points; this season, his two wins, four top-five and eight top-10 finishes have given him a 132-point lead over Matt Kenseth after 11 of 36 races.

"It's a little early to be worried about the championship," Marlin said recently, "but if we keep doing what we're doing, we'll be able to worry about it soon enough."

Crew chief Lee McCall said there is no doubt that the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge is a championship team. He said the talent is in place and the chemistry is working. And when it comes to him working with Marlin, the combination is near perfect.

"Sterling and I think alike," McCall said. "We kind of act alike. We're both laid-back. We don't get excited about things. We talk, sometimes two and three times a day. We reach deep down in each other's heart and brain and try to pick everything we can out. ... We feel a pretty large relationship."

Marlin agreed and said he had been a week or two away from looking for another ride, in April 2000, when Ganassi showed up and set him on the path to team up with McCall and change his circumstances.

"Felix [Sabates, team owner] sat down with me in March or April of 2000 and he was talking about maybe selling out and getting out of racing,'` Marlin said about the Sabates team in which Ganassi would buy a majority interest.

"All of a sudden, boom, along comes Chip and he gets details worked out with Felix in a couple of weeks, and the rest is the best year and a half I've ever had in racing. Chip is a racer. It's all he ever thinks about, and that's what it takes to make all this work."

Marlin only had to look at his dad's career to see how frustrating professional racing can be. Coo Coo Marlin ran 165 races. He never won. He earned $307,142 in his 14-year Winston Cup career.

"It was a struggle for my dad," Sterling said. "I knew what I was seeing when I was 16-17 years old, and I don't know how he did it. In 1980, he raced out of his own pocketbook and it was a hardship.

"But I raced from the time I was 15. It was just fun, driving and fooling with it. I never really thought about doing anything else. It's what I wanted to do, and even when times weren't going real good for me, I still believed you could win a Winston Cup title if you drove your heart out and kept trying."

When Ganassi came along, Marlin knew he wanted to stay with him and, as Marlin put it, "Chip wanted someone who could smash the gas."

Now, with Ganassi in charge and McCall calling the shots in the pits and Marlin smashing the gas, the son of an old-time driver has the chance to pick up a Winston Cup trophy and hold it in his hands. It might not be 130-plus years old, but it's old enough for Marlin to know its value.

"It would feel really good to do it," he said, in that slow Tennessee drawl.

Winston Cup standings

No. Driver Points Wins

1. Sterling Marlin 1,645 2

2. Matt Kenseth 1,513 2

3. Kurt Busch 1,454 1

4. Mark Martin 1,452 0

5. Rusty Wallace 1,442 0

6. Jeff Gordon 1,429 0

7. Jimmie Johnson 1,422 1

8. Tony Stewart 1,394 2

9. Jeff Burton 1,343 0

10. Ricky Rudd 1,330 0

11. Bill Elliott 1,299 0

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 1,288 1

13. Ryan Newman 1,206 0

14. Ward Burton 1,198 1

15. Dale Jarrett 1,177 0

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