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."
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.