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Dodging the raindrops pays off

Sterling Marlin beats Ricky Craven to the final yellow flag before rain ends the Pepsi 400, finally making Dodge a winner.

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 20, 2001

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Sterling Marlin has been the best Dodge driver all season, so it was only fitting he gave the automaker its first Winston Cup victory in 24 years.

The two-time Daytona 500 winner passed Bill Elliott with 53 laps left in the Pepsi 400 at Michigan International Speedway and won when a shower halted the event 38 laps short of the scheduled 200.

"We'll take them," said Marlin, who last won in a race of the same name, at Daytona in July 1996. That race also was shortened by rain.

Before Sunday, Neil Bonnett got the last win for Dodge in Ontario, Calif., in 1977. The automaker returned to Winston Cup racing this season after a 16-year absence.

Marlin beat Ricky Craven to the finish line at Lap 156 when the caution flew for rain, and the cars ran six laps under yellow before NASCAR called the race. An earlier shower at the halfway point forced a 1-hour 45-minute delay.

Craven finished a career-best second, with Elliott third. Matt Kenseth and Johnny Benson rounded out the top five.

"I kept looking in my mirror and I saw Ricky coming," Marlin said. "It was raining and I was thinking, 'Man, they've got to call it,' because it was getting slick out there.' "

Despite the long victory drought, Marlin remained confident in his ability.

"I never doubted myself," said Marlin, who got his seventh win. "I knew we could get the job done if we could get some stuff to do it with. I felt in my heart that I could still drive a race car as good as anybody."

Ricky Rudd's blown engine brought out the second caution, at Lap 121, and all the leaders except Jeremy Mayfield pitted. Elliott changed two tires and came out behind Mayfield while Marlin took four, putting him back in seventh.

Elliott passed Mayfield for the lead on Lap 129 and pulled out to a two-second advantage. But with fresher tires, Marlin steadily worked his way through the field and closed quickly on Elliott.

He made two attempts to pass before finally pulling aside his fellow Dodge driver on the front-stretch on Lap 147. Marlin took the lead in Turn 1.

"The first time I tried to pass him, I didn't catch him in the right place on the track," Marlin said. "The last time I caught him, I got a good run up off Turn 4 and just got on by."

Craven took second from Elliott four laps later, and was gaining on Marlin when the rain came.

"I think we were within five laps of getting there," Craven said. "It would have been exciting. I would have liked to have had 10 more laps to race him."

Rudd and Rusty Wallace appeared to have the fastest cars, but Rudd's engine went sour just before the delay and Wallace's did the same shortly after the race restarted.

"It always seems like you have problems when you're running good," Rudd said. "When you're not having a good day, nothing seems to break."

With those two out of the way, and with favorites Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett deep in traffic, it almost assured a surprise winner.

Many teams had crewmen posted at the NASCAR command post in the garage, watching the weather radar for the approaching rain. The pressure of an early finish provided some of the best racing, with cars dicing two- and three-wide.

Mark Martin led when NASCAR first stopped the race at Lap 100. He stayed out when most of the other leaders had to pit, but after the restart be fell back and wound up eighth.

Gordon finished eighth, and Jarrett had a flat left rear tire with 55 laps left and dropped to 37th. Gordon leads Rudd, who wound up 42nd, by 298 points.

Gearhead stats

AVERAGE SPEED: 140.513 mph.

TIME OF RACE: 2 hours 18 minutes 21 seconds.


CAUTION FLAGS: 3 for 18 laps.

LEAD CHANGES: 16 among 8 drivers.

LAP LEADERS: Elliott 1-10, Rudd 11-43, R. Wallace 44, Jarrett 45-46, Elliott 47-69, Rudd 70, Elliott 71-72, Rudd 73-89, R. Wallace 90-96, Martin 97-100, Elliott 101-106, R. Wallace 107-123, Hornaday Jr. 124-126, Mayfield 127-128, Elliott 129-144, Marlin 145-162.

UP NEXT: Sharpie 500, Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, 8 p.m. Saturday, TNT.

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