BROOKLYN, Mich. - Apparent victory had dodged Sterling Marlin twice in the last two months because of poor restarts while leading late in the race.
Each time he just sort of shrugged it off as if to say, “I'll take a rain check.”
When rain checked the completion of yesterday's NASCAR Winston Cup Pepsi 400 at Michigan International Speedway, washing away any chance for another re- start, there was Marlin, no longer a fish out of water at the finish.
Taking the lead from Billy Elliott on lap 145, Marlin then held off pole-sitter Ricky Craven to win for the first time since 1996, the race finishing under caution 17 laps later and 38 from its scheduled completion.
There were other firsts to be dispersed, thanks to Marlin's first triumph in 170 races.
It was the first victory for Dodge in its first year back in NASCAR Winston Cup racing after a 16-year absence and it was the first Winston Cup win for Chip Ganassi, Marlin's car owner.
Dodge's last triumph came in 1977 when the late Neil Bonnett won at the now defunct Ontario (Calif.) Motor Speedway.
Actually, it was the second win of the day for Ganassi, in his second year as a Winston Cup team owner. His Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) driver, Bruno Junqueira, won the CART race at Elkhart Lake, Wis., yesterday.
Marlin won in the same car he had here last June when he was leading the Kmart 400 with seven laps to go, but then got passed by Jeff Gordon and Ricky Rudd on a restart following a caution period. It was also the same car Marlin had in the lead in the final laps of the Brickyard 400 two weeks ago at Indianapolis, only to get passed by Gordon.
“This victory felt really great. It's been a while getting back,” Marlin said. “We just kept hammering away. We had a good car here in June.”
The third and last rain delay of the race came on lap 156. After six laps under caution the race was stopped for the last time with Craven coasting over the finish line second, followed by Elliott, Matt Kenseth, Johnny Benson, Dave Blaney, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin.
“I kept watching them clouds get bigger, they got so dark and I said a little prayer to the Good Lord to let it rain, and it rained,” Marlin said.
Craven's prayer for 10 more laps didn't get answered.
“I chased him (Marlin) down and I would like to have had 10 more laps to duke it out with him,” Craven said. “It was a lot of fun. I felt the No. 28 car (Ricky Rudd) was the car to beat, but he had his problems (blown engine on lap 121). When I saw that I said it was all up for grabs. I think I was at my best late in the race catching Sterling. I just ran out of time.”
The start of the race was delayed about 20 minutes because of light rain and then was stopped on lap 100 by heavier rain. The cars were directed into the pits and lined up in single file past the start-finish line, making it an official race.
All of the leaders had pitted just previous to the caution flag for rain on lap 96. Marlin took four tires. Elliott got just two, which gave him the track position he wanted - first - with the weather so irresponsible.
“Tony (Glover, crew chief) made a great call on the four-tire change,” Marlin said. “A guy running 18th or 20th might have won the race if they had stayed out and the race would have ended.”
That could have been Martin, who was running 18th and didn't pit before the caution came out on lap 96. That put him in the lead, followed by Michael Waltrip, who also had not pitted and then Elliott.
The race was delayed for 1:45 before it resumed again under caution. Martin had to pit the next time around and dropped back to 16th on the restart.
“If it rains the rest of the day it'll be pretty cool,” Martin said during the rain delay while mulling over the possibility of his first victory this season. “We've been trying to win one of these things however we can. This would be all right for today. We just might get lucky.”
If one of the nine Dodge drivers in this race was going to bring Dodge its first victory in 24 years, it should have been Marlin, based on the fact he's been the top Dodge driver all season, cruising in the top five in points most of the way.
“I would like to have seen a Dodge win if something happened to us today,” Marlin said, “but we've run good all year. It would have kind of hurt a little if someone in a Dodge would have won instead of us because we've been so close.”