DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Don't let the soft smile and that silky smooth southern drawl fool you - there is a determination in Sterling Marlin's eyes that is steely and serious.
You can just say that this season, the Nextel Cup ranks should see the fury of a veteran driver scorned. Marlin, who owns two victories in the Daytona 500 among his 10 wins in a career that has produced almost $40 million in winnings, has something to prove.
The 48-year-old Marlin was essentially dumped by Chip Ganassi Racing last season in favor of 28-year-old David Stremme. Ganassi wanted a younger driver in its Coors Light car to better connect with the sponsor's audience. Marlin took the high road out of Ganassi's garage, opting not to criticize the decision but to just move on and take his considerable experience to the MB2 Motorsports team.
"I still have some unfinished business as a driver," Marlin said, "and that's why I am really excited about joining MB2 Motorsports. They're a team on the rise and I am thrilled to have this opportunity."
Marlin, a Tennessee native and devoted fan of the University of Tennessee Volunteers football team, ran his first Winston Cup race in 1976, filling in for his father, NASCAR driver Coo Coo Marlin, who was injured at the time. The younger Marlin became a regular on the Cup circuit in 1983 when he won the rookie of the year award, and has finished in the top 10 in the points race five times in his career.
"The money's a lot better now than what it used to be - a whole lot better, that's for sure," Marlin said. "But the '70s and '80s were more laid-back - a lot simpler. You were just there to race. It wasn't the rushing or the panic mode that everyone seems to be in now. But it's all good. I never thought the sport would grow in popularity to where it is today."
Marlin's first win came in the 1994 Daytona 500, and when he claimed the super bowl of stock car racing again in 1995, Marlin became one of only three drivers to win consecutive Daytona 500 races. He tried to put a positive take on his move to MB2, and his first race with the new team coming up at Daytona International Speedway.
"Looking back, it seems like every time I go to a new team we run well in the Daytona 500," Marlin said. "When I went to Junior Johnson's team in 1991 we finished second in the 500, and then I went to Bill Stavola's team in 1993 and finished seventh at Daytona. The following year I went over to the No. 4 Kodak car with Morgan-McClure and won the Daytona 500."
In Marlin's first season with Ganassi in 2001, he was seventh in the 500, and in his first race at the big track in 1980 Marlin was eighth.
"I guess you could say I like coming out of the gate strong," Marlin said, "and hopefully it will be the same with my new MB2/Waste Management ride."
Marlin said his conservative expectations are to win a couple of races this season and field a competitive car each week.
"I think it's a realistic goal," Marlin said. "It'd be great to be in the top 10 at the end of the year and be able to contend for the Chase for the Nextel Cup, but winning races and being consistent is what's important. If you can do that, everything else will fall into place."
When the Nextel Cup circuit hits its fourth month this year, Marlin will mark 30 years since his first Cup race. He will attend to that "unfinished business" along the way.
"I hadn't really thought about it, but I'm amazed that I'm still around and have been running that long," Marlin said. "When you've been messing with race cars like I've been doing since I was 12 or 13 years old, time flies. Racing is my life and I'm still having a blast."
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Don't let the soft smile and that silky smooth southern drawl fool you - there is a determination in Sterling Marlin's eyes that is steely and serious.