Sterling Marlin savored beating Dale Earnhardt on Sunday nearly as much as he enjoyed winning his second straight Daytona 500.
After making a desperate tire stop late in the race, Earnhardt did everything but pass Marlin in the final 11 laps at Daytona International Speedway, coming up two car lengths short after a dramatic charge from 14th place.
“I knew there was a lot of cars on the lead lap and I didn’t think he had enough time,” Marlin said of Earnhardt’s bid to finally win NASCAR’s premier race in his 17th try. “But, with about eight laps to go, (crew chief Tony) Glover come on the radio and said, `You’d better go because he’s coming.’
“But I knew with about three laps to go, if we didn’t blow no tires or anything like that, we had it won.”
Marlin, whose only Winston Cup victories have come in stock car racing’s Super Bowl, became the first repeat winner since Cale Yarborough in 1983 and 1984.
This was particularly satisfying for Marlin and the entire Morgan-McClure team because of some alleged remarks by Earnhardt’s team that made the rounds in the garage area before the race.
“A guy come over from another team yesterday and we was shooting the breeze,” the Columbia, Tenn., driver said. “He said the way they were talking in the (No.) 3 camp, it sounds like they think they’ve got it locked up. They were saying, `We’re not going to worry about the (No.) 4 car, they’ll make a mistake somewhere.’ So that (win) was kind of sweet.”
Marlin’s powerful Chevrolet Monte Carlo started third and was among the leaders throughout the 200 laps, dominating the second half of the rain-interrupted race.
Earnhardt couldn’t pass Marlin on the track but gained the lead after beating Marlin out of the pits on lap 161 by about two feet.
Marlin, who led three times for 105 laps, regained the lead for the final time on lap 181, muscling past Earnhardt’s Monte Carlo on the low side of the banked 2-1/2-mile oval at about 190 mph as the two dove toward the third turn.
It appeared the rest of the race was going to be a walkaway for the son of former Winston Cup star Clifton “CooCoo” Marlin as Earnhardt faded, falling to third, behind Mark Martin, and struggling to hold off pole-starter Dale Jarrett.
Earnhardt, who now has finished second three times in the 500, got one more chance to win the big one that keeps getting away when Bobby Labonte hit the wall on lap 186, bringing out the 10th and final caution period of the race.
While all the other leaders remained on the track, Earnhardt drove onto pit road to put four fresh tires on his Monte Carlo. He came out of the pits 14th among the Daytona-record 21 cars that finished on the lead lap.
The green flag waved with 11 laps remaining and Earnhardt brought the record crowd of about 150,000 to its feet with a thrilling, all-out charge toward the front.
While Marlin cruised out front, Earnhardt’s distinctive black No. 3 sliced through traffic, moving to ninth after one lap. He was fifth by lap 192, fourth by 194, up to third on lap 195, and passed Martin for second with three to go.
The Intimidator did everything he could to catch Marlin’s orange No. 4, getting nearly up to his rear bumper coming off the second turn on lap 199. But Marlin had control and kept it, shaking off Earnhardt to win by 0.61 seconds.
“This is the Daytona 500,” Earnhardt said. “I’m not supposed to win the damn thing, I don’t reckon.”
“We just came up short again,” he added with a shrug as he walked quickly from his motorhome about 10 minutes after the end of the race. “I needed a little help to get by Sterling. He had a strong race car today and he deserved to win.”
Did the final run make it easier to swallow another loss in this race?
“I still lost,” he said. “All of them are heartbreaking losses if you don’t win. Second place don’t cut it. We’ll try them again next year.”
Talking about the pass for the final lead, Marlin, who said he was never passed on the track at Daytona all week, said, “He made a little bobble in (turn) two and I drove by him. The rest was history.”
“We were no match for Dale with those four new tires, and he didn’t have anybody left to help him once he got by me,” said Martin, who wound up third, just ahead of Roush Racing teammate Ted Musgrave.
Jarrett, in his first race replacing injured Ernie Irvan in the Robert Yates Racing Ford, wound up fifth, followed by Michael Waltrip, Steve Grissom, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Terry Labonte and Ken Schrader, and Morgan Shepherd.
Marlin averaged 141.710 mph and won $300,460.
Rain began falling on lap 69 and a red flag stopped the field three laps later. After a delay of 1 hour, 44 minutes, the race was completed without no further weather problems.
There were several crashes and spins but no serious incidents and no injuries reported in the season-opening race.
MEMO: This sidebar ran with story: FINISH LINE The top five finishers and their winnings from Sunday’s Daytona 500 NASCAR stock car race: 1. Sterling Marlin $300,460 2. Dale Earnhardt $212,250 3. Mark Martin $153,700 4. Ted Musgrave $111,200 5. Dale Jarrett $119,855
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