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Marlin Repeats at Another Sterling Daytona 500

By Vinnie Perrone
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 20, 1995

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA., FEB. 19 -- Dale Earnhardt swept around Daytona International Speedway with a ferocious closing rush today, a gathering wave that swallowed car after car and had only Sterling Marlin left to consume in the Daytona 500.

With the laps expiring, Marlin looked back and saw the black tide rising, Earnhardt's No. 3 Chevrolet. "I was hangin' on for dear life," Marlin said.

The Tennessee stock car driver has never won a Winston Cup race anywhere else, but here he kicks sand on the strongest foe. By weathering Earnhardt's late surge by three-fifths of a second, Marlin won the rain-stalled 500 for the second straight year, something only Richard Petty (with 200 career Winston Cup victories) and Cale Yarborough (83) have done.

Marlin is 2 for 310.

His wasn't the only NASCAR oddity extended. Earnhardt, who has won virtually every other Winston Cup race along the circuit and 26 secondary races on this track, remained a Daytona 500 chaser. He has yet to win in 17 tries.

His belated rally, however fierce, couldn't chase away that Daytona ghost, although it did get him a consolation prize of $212,250.

Before this 37th Daytona, Earnhardt had said he could win the "Super Bowl" of NASCAR with a sustained drive. He managed the drive, but finished one pass short before the estimated crowd of 150,000.

"We're just lucky we didn't have a couple more laps to go," said Marlin, "because he'd probably have gotten there."

The climactic showdown developed when Earnhardt, running third behind Marlin and Dale Jarrett with 12 laps remaining, hit the pits under a caution flag for new tires. The change couldn't wait, Earnhardt said.

He rejoined the line 14th, and soon began one of the most dynamic closing runs in Daytona history.

"At the time, I thought, Well, I don't think he has enough time to get here,' " Marlin said. Later, over the radio, his pit crew warned him: "You better go; he's comin' on."

As if powered by fate's tailwind, Earnhardt passed cars inside and out. He overpowered Mark Martin for second with four laps left in the 200-lap race and closed in on the front-runner in the yellow Monte Carlo. Earnhardt pulled within a car length of Marlin, but not close enough to try one desperate lunge for the lead.

"If I could ever have got to the {Marlin} car to make him loose through the corners, I might have got him," Earnhardt said. "But he was strong today, and this is the Daytona 500. I'm not supposed to win the thing, I don't reckon."

Marlin averaged 141.710 mph for the 500 miles, making him the second-slowest winner of this race in the past 20 years. He dismissed the irrelevant and accepted $300,460 from a purse of about $3.2 million.

Martin and Ted Musgrave, both driving Ford Thunderbirds owned by Jack Roush, finished third and fourth, followed by pole-sitter Jarrett in a Ford. Michael Waltrip was sixth, best among four driving Pontiac Grand Prixs.

Bobby Labonte, strong for most of the race in the Joe Gibbs-owned Chevy, exited abruptly after losing control of the black and green car 14 laps from the finish. He finished 30th to begin the 32-race Winston Cup season.

The weather, sunny and warm all week, was neither today, and with 70 laps covered a rain shower stalled the race for 1 hour 44 minutes. Jeff Gordon led when the rain brought a yellow flag on Lap 69, the red a lap later.

The cars went off the track in race order and parked away from team crews forbidden to service them. The drivers, it seemed, weren't the least disturbed. Many did interviews for CBS's TV broadcast; Kyle Petty hammed it up for the cameras by posing with a cigar in his mouth; Earnhardt, Martin and Dave Marcis chatted in lawn chairs.

Rain twice shortened the 500 in the 1960s, but today the 2.5-mile oval was dried well enough for a full resumption, with 39 of the 42 starters still in the race. (Thirty-two were running at the end, a race-record 21 on the lead lap.)

Not long after the restart, Gordon sputtered. The 23-year-old, bidding to become the youngest Daytona 500 winner, had led the field for 40 laps before the red flag appeared, and 20 afterward. But Gordon found trouble when he moved to the pit under caution on Lap 98, the multi-colored Monte Carlo incurring minor body damage when it seemed to slip a jack prematurely. Gordon rejoined the field but was a threat no more, finishing 22nd.

As Gordon limped off pit road, Earnhardt was first out of the pit to take the lead near the 100th lap. For the second half of the race, he or Marlin led all but one lap: Marlin low throughout, Earnhardt frequently high on the turns.

"I was better than Sterling through the corners, but he was better than I was down the straightaway," Earnhardt said after his third second-place finish in the race. "I reckon the best car won."

Marlin, 37, said his winless record at other tracks reflects the bad luck he's found beyond the beach. "Everything that could go wrong went wrong" last year, said Marlin, who mustered only one second place and one third place in 30 starts after last year's Daytona surprise. He's 2-for-14 here with seven top-10 finishes.

"I love Daytona Beach," he said, with little chance to savor it. Monday, he'll take his wife and kids to DisneyWorld before driving north toward the mountains and Sunday's Goodwrench 500 in Rockingham, N.C.

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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