Once they were all over the place. You couldn't swing a lug wrench in a Winston Cup garage without hitting one in the butt—a butt most likely covered by Wranglers. Once ubiquitous on the NASCAR circuit, these drawlers are now as hard to find as a tasteful racing T-shirt. The good ol' boy driver, it seems, has gone the way of the buffalo.
These days, everywhere you turn there's a hotshot kid from north of the Mason-Dixon Line who's being touted as the next big thing—if he isn't it already. Reigning Winston Cup champ Jeff Gordon is from Indiana by way of California. Last year's rookie of the year, Kevin Harvick, is from California, as is one of this year's front-runners for that honor, Jimmie Johnson. Matt Kenseth of Wisconsin won the rookie crown two years ago, and Tony Stewart got it the year before that. He hails from Indiana. Aside from their driving ability, their geographical roots and their youth, these kids have one other thing in common: They are all chasing the same guy, a member of the old guard who refuses to go away. He's Sterling Marlin, he's a terrific driver, he's 44 years old, and he could keep Jeff Foxworthy scribbling notes to himself on the back of cocktail napkins for months to come. (If it sounds like you were named after the biggest fish a family member ever caught, you might be a redneck....)
After a ninth-place finish in the Atlanta 500 on Sunday, the first race all season in which he didn't have a chance to win in the last five laps, Marlin has a 74-point lead over 24-year-old rookie Ryan Newman, a native of South Bend. For Marlin, his success this year and the goodwill it's engendering are a blessed relief from his long dark ride in 2001. For no matter how well he raced last season—and he raced better than he ever had before—Marlin couldn't make people talk about anything other than what happened on Feb. 18. In the final turn of the Daytona 500, the back of Dale Earnhardt's GM Goodwrench Chevy and the front of Marlin's Coors Light Dodge touched ever so gently. The contact sent Earnhardt's car up the banking and into the wall, killing him instantly. Wrecks are routinely written off as "one of those racing deals" by NASCAR folk, but Earnhardt was Earnhardt, so not everyone was willing to let this one slide. Video of the crash was dissected as if it were the Zapruder film, and for some fans at least, Marlin's Silver Bullet somehow became the magic bullet.
Marlin returned to his home in Columbia, Tenn., flipped on the TV and was shocked at what he was hearing. "Some of these media guys who couldn't spell driveshaft, I walk in home after the race and here they're saying that I wrecked Earnhardt and put him in the wall, which is the furthest thing from the truth," he says. Marlin's home number is unlisted, but that didn't stop some zealots. They started faxing death threats to his race shop.
The threats subsided when Dale Earnhardt Jr. declared such behavior from his late father's fans "unacceptable" a few days later. Dale Jr.'s words didn't make the story go away, though. The elder Earnhardt's death came up all the time, even from people trying to help Marlin forget it. "I had Earnhardt fans coming through my autograph lines telling me it wasn't my fault," he says.
Marlin did his best to put the constant reminders aside and drive. "Sterling, in his eyes, realized he didn't do anything wrong," says Tony Glover, Marlin's manager and friend for a quarter century. "The fans threatening him, that was a distraction, but as far as the way he drove the race car, it made no difference." In fact, Marlin drove improbably well, winning two races and finishing a career-best third in the Winston Cup points race at the tender age of 43.
That success has carried over to this year. With a little luck in February, Marlin could have started his season with three straight wins. A bent right front fender—and his subsequent illegal foray onto the track to fix it during a red-flag stoppage—cost him the lead with five laps left in the Daytona 500. The following week he finished second at Rockingham after NASCAR officials let the Subway 400 finish under caution, depriving Marlin of a last chance to catch the winner, Kenseth. He finally won in Las Vegas the following week. "The car I think you're going to see near the top of the standings continuously, and he's got a heck of a jump on the field, is the 40 car," says Jimmy Makar, crew chief for 2000 Winston Cup champ Bobby Labonte, referring to Marlin's Dodge. "That's the guy we're going to be chasing most of the year, if Sterling and his crew don't shoot themselves in the foot."
That's not likely. Marlin has waited too long for this chance to squander it. "It just takes a long time to get with a good team and get yourself where you can get equipment that can win races," he says.
It has taken Marlin a long time, but at least he has spent it being colorful. He got his start in racing as a 12-year-old, working on the cars that his father, Coo Coo, drove. (If one of your parents is named Coo Coo—and it's not your mother—you might be....) Coo Coo appeared in 164 NASCAR races without a win, primarily because his team lacked a certain amount of professionalism. The team was, essentially, Coo Coo and Sterling working in a 500-square-foot shop on the 600-acre family farm in Columbia. When he got a little older, Sterling would hop into a Chevrolet truck with his older cousin David and go wherever Coo Coo was racing. "David would drive awhile, then he'd get tired," says Marlin. "I didn't have a license, but he'd let me drive at night. We'd take a Pepsi bottle and wedge it onto the accelerator, like a cruise control. That accelerator was real hard to mash."
If they had to stop? "We just kicked the bottle out."