Fracture ends Marlin's bid for points title

He led list for 25 weeks

vertebra broken in crash

Auto Racing

October 03, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Sterling Marlin, in search of his first Winston Cup points title in 20 years of full-time competition, finds himself on the sideline today as the championship race heads into the final seven races of the season.

Marlin suffered a non-displaced fracture of the No. 2 cervical vertebra in a crash at Kansas Speedway Sunday. The injury was discovered yesterday at the Carolina Neurological and Spinal Injury Clinic in Charlotte, N.C.

He led the Winston Cup standings for 25 weeks before losing the lead 2 1/2 weeks ago in Dover, Del. After the Kansas accident, he slipped to fifth in the standings behind Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.

Marlin was still within 121 points of the leader and was part of the closest Winston Cup points race since the current system went into effect in 1972.

"Sterling obviously is very upset," said Felix Sabates, team co-owner. "He felt like he had a legitimate chance at winning his first championship. Yes, the team had fallen off a little bit over the past few weeks, but with the tightness of the points race, he had as good a shot as anyone."

According to stock car racing historian Bob Latford - who created the points system - only once before has a driver in the thick of the championship battle been sidelined by an injury this late in a season.

It happened Oct. 23, 1956, when three-time champion Herb Thomas was leading in points with three races to go. He suffered multiple injuries in a crash in a race in Shelby, N.C., opening the door for Buck Baker to win the first of two titles.

Marlin is expected to make a full recovery and be back in his Dodge next season.

"It is unfortunate that Sterling has to end his season early due to his injury," said co-owner Chip Ganassi. "Sterling has dominated the championship points race, and we were looking forward to helping him win his first NASCAR Winston Cup title."

Ganassi immediately named Busch Grand National driver Jamie McMurray to replace Marlin in the No. 40 Dodge.

According to NASCAR rules, a driver must at least start a race to collect the driver's points. So McMurray will now collect the driver's points in the races he runs in the No. 40 car. But owner points from the car will continue to accumulate for Ganassi/Sabates.

Though unlikely, that means if McMurray does exceptionally well over the next few weeks, Ganassi/Sabates could wind up with the car owners' championship while someone else's driver wins the driver's title.

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