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Is it a tall tale or truth?

Sterling Marlin's escapades on the track sound like one of his stories. But they're not.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2003


DAYTONA BEACH -- Pull up a chair. Sterling Marlin's going to tell a story.

In a Winston Cup garage packed with rascals, rogues and scalawags, folks crowd around to hear Marlin spin a yarn in his Tennessee twang. It's sure to have drama. A tinge of suspense. A punchline.

And it just might be true.

Like the flaming cow story, which starts with, "Well, me and Daddy, we're not too good about reading directions." Or the muskrat story, in which Marlin tells a marina owner, "Well, if I was you, I'd put some gasoline down there, wait a while and light a match to it."

Don't worry, the cow was fine. The muskrats, not so lucky.

"His stories are second to none," pal Tony Glover said.

Last year, that was true of Marlin on the racetrack as well. A journeyman for much of his 20-year career, Marlin was the focus of some incredible storylines in the No. 40 Dodge, all of which took twists too bizarre, even, for one of his homespun narratives.

Marlin was in position to win the Daytona 500 but scrambled out of his car during a red flag and tugged on the right front fender. Yes, it startled him when the NASCAR official tapped him on the shoulder.

Marlin also was in position to win his first Winston Cup championship but hit the wall so hard at Kansas that it cracked a vertebra in his neck. Yes, he was riding the bush hog on his farm when team co-owner Felix Sabates called with the MRI results.

Funny, but not really.

Marlin has not added those stories to his repertoire. At least not yet. Today, when the season begins at the Daytona 500, Marlin hopes to finish what he started last year. "It was tough sitting out those last few races last year," the 45-year-old Marlin said. "But we got healed up. I stayed fired up. I've got the same group of guys, the same owners, we're back in the Dodge again, all the stuff is there. We'll just line up and go again."

Here's the story.

Marlin was leading the Daytona 500 last year when a multi-car crash with five laps left caused NASCAR to stop the race to clean up and allow for a green-flag finish. Had it finished under caution, Marlin might have made it. But minimal contact during the melee bent Marlin's fender, causing it to rub the tire. Then he got an idea.

"We had to pit anyway, so what's the worst that could happen," Marlin said. "Were they going to put you in jail? If it happened again, I'd probably do the same thing, but I might not pull on the fender. I'd just look at it real good."

Officials deliberated for several minutes before penalizing Marlin for working on his car during a red flag. He was sent to the end of the longest line for the restart and finished eighth.

Even so, Marlin was the first to win multiple races. He took the points lead after the second race and held it for 25 consecutive weeks. He lost it a week after hitting the wall at Richmond and was fourth until the Kansas crash.

At Talladega, he wore a neck brace. His season, his best chance to win the championship, was over. Sidelined the final seven races, he plunged to 18th in the standings.

"It was frustrating," Marlin said. "We worked hard all year to get in a position to try to win the championship, and then we had that happen. But worse things have happened. We're glad to be back, and we're looking forward to getting it all done this year."

Marlin remains the premier driver at Chip Ganassi Racing, joined by high-profile rookies Jamie McMurray, who won as a substitute for Marlin last year at Charlotte, and Casey Mears, nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Rick Mears. McMurray is 26, Mears 24. Neither has heard Marlin's stories before.

"Sterling is such a genuine person," McMurray said. "When he tells you something, you can believe it."

When it comes to cars, maybe.

But what about the day Coo Coo Marlin enlisted his son's help on the farm, instructing him to spread tick-repellent powder between the shoulder blades of each cow and send it through the chute for Coo Coo to brand. Sterling got a little sloppy with the powder, and it turned out to be flammable.

"Whoosh," he said.

Or the day Marlin and his son, Steadman, stopped at a marina to put gasoline in their boat and found a woman jabbing under the dock with the end of a broom. Muskrats. Some weeks later, fellow lake-dweller Terry Labonte asked Marlin if he'd heard about the explosion.

"I haven't been back since," Marlin said.

But he returns today to Daytona, eager to exchange last year's hard-luck tale for a trip to Victory Lane. Now, wouldn't that be a story?

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