It had taken Sterling Marlin 17 years and 278 losses to get himself in this position, and now, with just a lap to go in Sunday's Daytona 500, the only thing he could think about was all the dirt tracks and blacktop bullrings he had driven on his way here. "I told myself, This is a short track, it's Saturday night at Nashville, you're leading, nothing to it," he said later. Actually, there was quite a bit to it.
Marlin was not only trying to win his first Daytona 500, he was also trying to win his first Winston Cup race. Left in his wake were Ernie Irvan, Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt, with 90 Cup victories among them. But who was counting?
O.K., everybody was counting. Marlin had not been into the pits for fuel for 59 laps, and all that stood between him and career race number 279 without a victory was an unknown quantity of vapor. "I felt he might run out of gas," allowed his father, Coo Coo Marlin, himself a former NASCAR driver, "but he came on around just fine." The only one who wasn't counting was the younger Marlin, who had been assured by his pit crew that he had enough fuel to finish the race. "I never thought a thing about it," he said.
And Irvan, known as Swervin' Irvan but in these last few laps as Turny Ernie because of an ill-handling car, could not urge his Ford Thunderbird past Marlin's Chevy Lumina. "I tried to knock the wall down coming off Turn 4," Irvan said of his mishap on Lap 180, which gave the lead to Marlin. "it broke loose, and I about spun, but I got lucky and saved it."
February 28, 1994
Not as lucky as the previously luckless Marlin, whose biggest break before Sunday was that unlike almost every other NASCAR driver, he was not named after his father. That is not to say Sterling wasn't always cuckoo for racing. He was in his daddy's pit at Daytona as a tire changer in 1975, and on Sunday, Coo Coo returned the favor. Coo Coo started 166 races when he was on the NASCAR circuit and never won, giving father and son a combined total, coming into Daytona, of 444 outings without a single victory.
That string of futility is almost on a par with Earnhardt's record in the Daytona 500, where he has never won in 16 starts, despite 59 career victories at other, less prestigious events. Sunday brought the first sunshine in a week, and during the six days of tune-up races leading up to the 500, every time a black cloud came out, there was Earnhardt again in Victory Lane. In fact, so dominating was his performance that by the end of this year's Speedweeks at Daytona—a series of Clashes, Dashes, Twin 125s, 200s, 300s, IROCs and, if you can stand it, Hooters Cups, all of them provided by NASCAR to fill the lulls between rainstorms—there seemed little doubt that this would be the year the great man would finally win his first 500.
Earnhardt himself appeared so relaxed and confident about what Sunday's race held in store for him that after his win in a 300-mile race for Grand National cars on Saturday—his third victory at the Speedway in as many days—he kept reminding people that "we've won 23 races at Daytona and never won the Daytona 500."
This did not exactly come as news to the Earnhardt faithful, many of whom were at Daytona last week, beefing up their spring and summer wardrobes at the track's T-shirt stands. Stock car fans rise early and dress in the dark, their closets stuffed like a ballot box with shirts on which they cast their vote for the best driver. Earnhardt gets a lot of support in this pullover plebiscite, but ANYBODY BUT EARNHARDT shirts are also popular.
Last week Earnhardt's tribe of loyal blackshirts in the infield RV camps desperately sought some portent of victory, which put the entrails of all live animals at peril. On his boat, docked at a nearby marina, Earnhardt contented himself with a banana split on Saturday night. "I've had a banana split the night before every race I've won this week," he revealed.
Two of the fastest cars at Daytona in '93 spent most of this year's Speedweeks sliding around the track's high-banked turns as if they were on Earnhardt's banana peels. Dale Jarrett slipped from last year's winner's circle all the way to the last row of the starting grid for the 500, and he got that only because his team was awarded a spot by NASCAR. Last year's pole sitter, Kyle Petty, suffered the same handling problems that plagued many of the cars and had to start from the 26th position in the 42-car field.
There was considerable doubt in the garages that this year's pole sitter, rookie Loy Allen Jr., was actually driving well enough to be at the front of the field. Many drivers suspected that Allen's sole advantage was his choice of tires during qualifying—he had used the quicker but supposedly less stable Hoosiers—and that suspicion proved accurate when Allen dropped back soon after the race began and finished 22nd on Goodyear tires. Allen and 17 other drivers who had been using Hoosiers during the week were all but compelled to switch to Goodyears for the 500 after the howl against the Hoosiers reached a near frenzy following the deaths during practice of veteran driver Neil Bonnett and rookie Rodney Orr, both of whom had been on Hoosiers.
The contact patch of the Hoosier is designed to narrow as the tire rotates, with the result that less rubber touches the ground—thus there's less friction. There is no denying their performance. But a lot of drivers agreed with Irvan, who said, "As far as I'm concerned, when Hoosiers came along they messed up our sport." Of course, Irvan and most of the other drivers denouncing the new tire were under contract to Goodyear, which has supplied nearly all of the tires for NASCAR for 45 years. "I'm not one to say the tires are bad," said Rusty Wallace. "All I know is that all the accidents happened on them." Well, not all of them, as Wallace proved on his Goodyears when he got caught up in a nine-car melee on the 62nd lap and finished next to last.
Wallace was so concerned about safety in this year's race that he got up in the drivers' meetings before several Speed-weeks races and made an impassioned plea for everyone to exercise restraint. "Please respect each other," he implored. "I'll even go out on a limb and say that, well, I think that every damn body in this room is running a little bit scared. And I will tell you, my wife is runnin' damn scared. And I think the rest of your wives and families are too. So use your damn heads, please!"
"He's been flying around here," driver Geoff Bodine said, "so he ought to know."
Geoff's younger brother Todd was having a spectacular run at the leaders during the early part of Sunday's race when on the backstretch he ran afoul of 22-year-old Jeff Gordon, who nudged Bodine's car and nearly sent it airborne. "For such a good kid with a great future, he made an awful stupid move," Todd said of Gordon. But then, Gordon was both feeling and sowing his wild oats, having gotten engaged to Brooke Sealey, a former Miss Winston, on the Wednesday before the race, then going on to finish fourth in the 500, three spots ahead of Earnhardt.
Earnhardt led for 45 laps in the race, which saw 33 lead changes among 14 drivers, but he faded in the last 30 laps, just as Marlin was getting stronger, and finished seventh. Early in the race Marlin had been lifting off the gas every time he went into the corners, but he was able to keep his foot to the floor when it counted. "I told my guys if they could fix it so I could hold it open in the corners, we'd win." They did, and then he did.
When Marlin rolled into the pits with the win, the fuelers and tire changers for the other teams came out to give him high fives. "I was one of those guys," he said. As Coo Coo came out to slip his son some skin, Marlin's car shuddered and died. He was finally out of gas.