'These things happen'
Marlin speaks out on Earnhardt accident
Updated: Thursday February 22, 2001 9:42 AM
By Mike Fish, CNNSI.com
No matter how it's framed in racing history, Sterling Marlin will always be tied to the accident that closed out Dale Earnhardt's life.
Forget that he did nothing Earnhardt himself wouldn't have done. Forget that he's been exonerated by every last member of the close-knit racing community, from his fellow drivers on up to the NASCAR bosses. Despite all of that, as Marlin has come to know, some racing fans still want to hold him accountable.
Maybe they're just Earnhardt loyalists that can't let go. Or others simply in denial about what happened on the final Daytona 500 turn.
Or, as Marlin suspects, "Things happen and people look for somebody blame. Those high-speed tracks, you don't touch somebody hard. No way I'd do it. I'd put myself in jeopardy."
Marlin made his first public comments about the fateful crash Tuesday, in part to clear his name and get the truth out.
He hasn't received any threats of physical violence, though the 43-year-old Marlin admits to seeing some nasty e-mails and faxes since Sunday's race. But it's nothing that will keep him from appearing at this weekend's Winston Cup stop in Rockingham, N.C.
"If people come back to their senses, I don't think it'll be a problem," Marlin said. "I hope not. I definitely didn't do anything intentional. We were just racing our guts out for the last lap of the Daytona 500. Everybody was going for it.
"Dale's car got caught in the middle [three-wide with Kenny Schrader]. I was as low as I could go. Whether Rusty [Wallace] got him loose and down into me, I don't know. You have to talk to Rusty Wallace. I watched the tape one time and that is all I want to see it."
If you have any doubts about his innocence, he pleads, just watch the tape.
The fans that want to blame him haven't gone to the video, he suspects. Heck, he flipped on the TV late Sunday night and heard a sportscaster say his "vicious tap" put Earnhardt into the wall.
"You just want to climb through the TV and pull the guy out of there," Marlin said.
As everyone in the sport has said, it was just hard, tight racing. Just up front, Michael Waltrip and Earnhardt's son, Dale Jr., were running for the checkered flag. Whether Dale Sr. went down low to block Marlin, we'll never know, but their cars touched and the "Intimidator" lost control of his No. 3 Monte Carlo and slammed into the turn 4 wall.
"We got under Dale going down the backstretch, me and Schrader," said Marlin, recalling the scene. "Kenny pulled up to go outside to make it three-deep going in. I'm on the bottom. I think, from the words I hear, Dale's spotter told him: 'He's under you, he's under you.'
"When you get three-deep the closing factor [from the trailing cars] is really a lot. It looks like Rusty really pulled up on Dale. I don't know if it got him loose or what. All I know is Dale came down a little bit. We touched and it sent my car across the apron and Dale's, too. He over-corrected his car and went back up across track. That is the last I saw."
How is it that his Dodge didn't likewise shoot dangerously across the track?
"Just pure luck that I caught it," he said. "When you run across the apron at 180 [miles per hour] at Daytona, you don't generally come back. We just got lucky."
Still, afterward, the 43-year-old Tennessee native didn't comprehend the seriousness of Earnhardt's date with the outer, concrete wall. It wasn't until he was about to board a jet home that he learned.
"We didn't know it was that bad," Marlin said. "I was in total shock. I've seen him hit, flip and tumble. I couldn't believe it.
"Makes you want to go throw up. Sick to your stomach."
Marlin and the others will be back to work this weekend in Rockingham. He says it's the way Earnhardt would want it. But from the sounds of things, it could be a nice place for Marlin to escape the pressure of recent days.
"You're in the car, nobody is messing with you," he said. "It's something Dale has done all his life and I done about all my life. It's something you enjoy doing."