I grew up watching Sterling Marlin at his best. With bated breath as a 14-year-old, 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 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’s 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. 20 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 ninth 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. Nemechek didn’t just struggle with Ginn Racing this season – he hadn’t won since 2004, in the process dropping to about 30th in 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 Darrell 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, 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 16 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.