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Life's work lands Marlin at the top

Sterling Marlin, who leads the Winston Cup standings, has never finished higher than third in points.

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 6, 2002

DAYTONA BEACH -- You will never get anyone to put it in writing.

People will tell you that persistence and hard work will lead to success, but no one will guarantee it.

In the end, you are left to rely on your faith, which is exactly what Sterling Marlin is doing. I mean, when you've been reaching for something for nearly two decades, what else can you do?

If there is any kind of justice and fairness in racing, it will happen for Marlin. And, in a way, for Coo Coo, too. This year would be nice, but the timing isn't important as long as Sterling Marlin indeed gets there one day. Frankly, you'll find few drivers in this sport more deserving of a Winston Cup championship.

He didn't come from the school of hard knocks; he founded it. In the early days, he worked this racing business from sunup to sundown. He had to do it all. The fixing, the hauling and driving.

Growing up in rural Franklin, Tenn., there just wasn't a lot of money for racing. In those days, Marlin and his wife, Paula, drove to every race, often traveling through the night and arriving just before dawn. His father, Coo Coo, came up the same way, scratching and scraping for everything he got in stock car racing, which wasn't much.

Still, he made Sterling believe that it could happen for him, that even though all those years of sweat and back-breaking work didn't bring him a championship, it could be different for Sterling.

If you work like the dickens, he said, one day it could all pay off. Big.

"I've been doing this quite a while and it's a deal where we saw times where you got home on Monday and said, 'How in the world am I going to pay the tire bill or pay this or pay that?"' Marlin said. "You were just racing from week to week and hoping you could make enough money to get to the racetrack the next week.

"It's just really made me more appreciative of what it would mean if we could win the championship."

Today's Pepsi 400 marks the halfway point in the season, essentially meaning the series-leading Marlin is halfway there, midway on a journey started by a father and continued by a son.

When an 18-year-old Marlin took over for his injured father at that Winston Cup race in Nashville in May 1976, he not only took over his father's seat, but his quest to be a champion as well.

More than 26 years later, both still are waiting.

"It's kind of aggravating knowing you can do it but not having the stuff to do it with. You kind of had your hands tied," Marlin said of his early days when he was with teams not half as good as the Chip Ganassi team he's with now. "But all I've ever done is drove a race car and that's all I enjoy doing. You just do all you can do and, I guess, like the old saying, good things come to those who wait."

Waiting, of course, is nothing new to Sterling. The 11-year lull between his rookie season and his first Winston Cup victory is legendary. It took him 279 races to finally get to Victory Lane.

Coo Coo never got there.

Now, the quest has changed. Marlin has won plenty of races, but never a championship.

He has come close, most recently finishing third in points last season. Never, though, have his chances looked as good as they do this season.

He has consistently sat atop the series, running more steadily than anything else. He has just two wins, but nine top-10 finishes and just two outside the top 20.

Granted, his past two results -- 21st at Michigan and 43rd at Sonoma -- cost him some ground in the standings, but that might not be cause for alarm. He is back at Daytona where he typically has run well.

In fact, if he hadn't been penalized by NASCAR for exiting his front-running car during that caution period at the Daytona 500 in February, he might have an even bigger points lead.

As it is, he is 62 points ahead of Mark Martin. As anyone who follows this sport knows, much can happen between now and season's end.

But if righteousness has any say in the matter, Marlin still will be where he is now, sitting atop a sport that holds his life's work. If righteousness figures into the equation, persistence and hard work finally will bring him the one prize neither he nor his father have been able to attain.

Sterling Marlin has to believe that. Because, after all the sweat and drudgery he has endured, the alternatives are too maddening to even think about.

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