The Frontstretch: Bowles-Eye: NASCAR Veterans Can't Outrace Father Time by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday July 22, 2007

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Bowles-Eye: NASCAR Veterans Can't Outrace Father Time

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Sunday July 22, 2007


I grew up watching Sterling Marlin at his best. With baited breath as a fourteen-year-old teen, I watched the final laps of the 1995 Daytona 500, leaning a little too close to the television in anticipation that this would be the year the great Dale Earnhardt, Sr. would finally win his first Great American Race. On fresher tires as the laps wound down, Earnhardt cut through the field like a knife, fighting his way from the back to the front with ease – but in the end, he could do no better then second place. Instead, it was the man driving a Kodak Chevrolet legendary for its Daytona performances who kept both the Intimidator and the rest of the pack at bay. As Sterling Marlin crossed the line first to take his second straight Daytona 500, he wrote his name in the record books - only Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty had pulled off back-to-back victories since the race began in 1959. How Marlin held the charging Earnhardt off to do so was restrictor plate driving at its best, one of the better Daytona 500 races I can remember.

But as the sport marched on and the years have passed, there's now a different car creeping up behind Marlin's rear bumper. At the wheel is Father Time - getting stronger with each passing lap - and with a perfect record of catching up to everyone in front of him.

It's time we all accept he's here.

As the 2007 season enters its final 16-week stretch, Marlin has recently found himself stretching for any help he can get - his career sidetracked by way of the unemployment line, courtesy beleaguered car owner Bobby Ginn. After releasing Marlin and fellow veteran Joe Nemechek this week due to team restructuring, Ginn made it clear that lack of sponsorship - both men were running without full-time support - proved the biggest motivation behind making changes to his team. Fans have been merciless in their criticisms ever since; for all I can tell, Ginn's about as popular in NASCAR-land right now as Kyle Busch with Hendrick Motorsports.

In some ways, those fans have a beef. As I pointed out in Sports Illustrated two weeks ago, there's no doubt Ginn hasn't been the best of owners - right now, the way he's running his team into the ground makes Britney Spears' fall from grace look pleasant by comparison. But behind all the yelling and screaming from the old-time crowds and some of my fellow talking heads, Ginn does make one point about Marlin’s release that carries weight. To make an organization work at NASCAR's top level, you need sponsorship to make it happen - and in order to snag sponsorship, you need to produce. Unfortunately for Marlin, now 50 and in the midst of what he claimed was his last full-time season, that hasn’t happened for quite sometime.

It's not like the driver wasn't given every opportunity to make things happen. After three crew chiefs plus an owner change, the No. 14 has been through several transformations - and none of them have worked. Twenty races in, Marlin's lone distinction is the only driver to make every race and not come up with a Top 10 finish. When added to last season's collection of disappointments, the best Marlin's been able to come up with since sitting in this seat is a 9th at Richmond - over one year and 45 starts ago.

If those are the most recent numbers on your resume, it’s hard to get sponsors to invest in you, even if you once were a lucky break away from taking the 2002 Cup title. Ironically, should Marlin have held on that season he would be in high demand, the first in line for the Past Champion's Provisional made famous this year for keeping both teams and careers afloat. But alas, a hard crash in Kansas kept Marlin sidelined for the final seven races that year- leaving him in the category of "better" and not the "best."

That's a sad but important distinction, the kind of thing that allows Richard Petty to drive his final eight years without a victory while Ward Burton and Bobby Hamilton get kicked to the curb without so much as a sorry to see you go. In all reality, Marlin's situation is no different than several other veterans on the outside looking in. Ken Schrader wouldn't have been removed from his Wood Brothers ride if he hadn't snagged just one Top 10 finish in over a year driving for the team. Joe Nemechek didn't just struggle with Ginn Racing this season - he hadn't won since 2004, in the process dropping to about 30th points for a good year-and-a-half before being given the boot.

Certainly, if Marlin wants to keep racing, he's welcome to do so anywhere he can get a ride. But this expectation that aging veterans should be giftwrapped a place to drive around until they retire is just too much of a fairy tale to come true for every man gifted enough to get behind the wheel of a Cup car. Only the best of the best - Petty, Waltrip, Wallace, Labonte - get lucky enough to seal their own fates. And even then, the biggest superstars can pay the price for hanging on too long - anyone would hardly say Waltrip had an "A" quality ride during his final two years in the sport, as Waltrip failed to qualify for races at a rate not unlike what Dale Jarrett is going through now at the tail end of his career.

So, Sterling Marlin, I salute your greatness. You were one of the better drivers I've ever seen. Two Daytona 500s, Dodge's first win in the 21st century, a third place points finish and oh-so-close to a title in ’02. Your last act of racing under your father's number - No. 14 - was honorable and filled with integrity. Ending that two-year chapter sixteen races short won't take that away.

There’s no question you were very, very good. But not good enough to hold off the cold, unforgiving hands of Father Time - and in the process, seal your own fate.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Beyond the Cockpit: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Growing Up Racing and Owner Loyalties
The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
NASCAR Writer Power Rankings: Top 15 After Darlington
NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
Open Wheel Wednesday: How Can IndyCar Stand Out?


©2000 - 2008 Thomas Bowles and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

M. B. Voelker
07/23/2007 06:16 AM

Thanks for the gentle but pointed dose of reality. I’m rather fond of “Front Row Joe”, but on reading this I have to realize that if a young driver were performing the way Joe and Sterling have the same fans who’ve yelling in outrage over losing those veterans would have been yelling just as loudly to have the kid fired.

I hope its realistic to expect to see Joe in a Busch or truck ride soon.

07/23/2007 06:29 AM

Sterling wasn’t my favorite but I remember feeling really bad for him when he got hurt, he would of made a great Champ.
I am so glad I couldn’t stomach Jarrett going to MWR. I guess he did me a favor, I am not emotionally involved in that trainwreck.
Should we even feel sorry for them? Do they stay too long because they love it or are they milking every last penny out of it before they ride off to the sunset?
They all should look to Rusty, who went out like they all should.

07/23/2007 07:25 AM

Don’t forget Harry Gant. He was in his 50’s and still at the top of his game. It depends upon the team and the driver. The worst hanger-on was Waltrip. He just couldn’t give it up, and , of course, he couldn’t shut his mouth. Unfortunately, he has found a way to stay involved and continue to grate upon our nerves.

07/23/2007 09:13 AM

When was last time McMurray won before Daytona? Charlotte in a car Sterling had developed setup for. You have to have equipment no matter the age. Put Kyle Busch in the 14 and see what happens. Look at his brother, what happened when he went to Penske. Simple fact is you need that sex appeal to please the sponsors. The new nascar- let’s sell some junk.

07/23/2007 09:50 AM

Oh yeah, I forgot to add that Sterling doesn’t speak with a generic accent and doesn’t appeal to the 20-30 year old group, which NASCAR is mistakenly courting.

07/23/2007 04:02 PM

I go back to day 1 w/Sterling. Saw him run his first Late Model race at Nashville when he was a rookie with 3 other young studs (including a DW protege named Mike Alexander who had a short Cup career subbing for Bobby Allison B4 getting badly injured), saw him Q CooCoo’s car into the Cup field at Nashville in 1976, saw him dominate in the Coors sponsored Firebird GrandAm car at Nashville in early 80s, and was there for his first D500 win in 94. Its going to be sad watching a Cup race without him running in it.

07/24/2007 09:28 AM

i understand the father time thing-
but wouldn’t it have been better to keep sterling in the 14 till the end of the season
and let smith have 5 for sure races in’08
how long will smith keep the 14 in the top 35?
i just think it was a C S thing to do

Barbara D
07/24/2007 10:49 AM

“Old” fans like “old” drivers. Young fans like change. Nascar likes young fans. Have at it Nascar. Your greed is even more incredible than your meteoric rise. Shooting stars burn up in the air, or crash into a big hole. I’ll held on as long as Sterling drives but it isn’t easy and it isn’t fun. It’s more interesting to see what today’s rules are than today’s winner. As for Bobby Ginn, I will delete the expletive. You all know it. I wish the best to Almirola & Smith and the surviving crews.
Sterling will be fine. He knows he was 2002 Champion through 25 races,and we all love him. Barb

07/24/2007 03:26 PM

Ginn should keep his word! He talks with a forked tongue and sponsors should be very weary of him! He has no integrity! They say Sterling and Joe was a class act….Ginn and Frye dont have a clue as to what that even means! You havent begun to hear the fans roar yet! We are just getting started

Timmy C
07/24/2007 06:16 PM

I believe Bobby Ginn, and Ginn Racing will be gone as fast as they came. I guess in all of sports CONTACTS mean nada.They aren’t worth the paper they are written on. If BG and his sponsers blame the drivers for bad results because of flat tires, blown transmissions and engines…
Then I’m blaming this keyboard for all my typo’s, and my pen for misspellings. As many have stated, you need equiptment to run with the Hendrix’s / Rouch’s. Put any of the top 12 drivers in the #13 or #14 and the results would be the same. I feel sorry for Ragan. He getting a chance of a lifetime at driving the #14…But that’s kinda like getting
a high paying job with a corner office on the 80th floor of the World Trade Towers on Sept 10.
We’ll miss you Sterling and Joe. But even if father time eventually catches up…It has been written…it has been done… you both were two of the greatest at the game and need not go in shame. We salute you.


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