Coo Coo About Marlin

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At times in recent years, our little game has become downright unrecognizable. The glitz, the marketing campaigns, the new stadiums that appear well-suited for country-clubbers, but not country boys.

But good news, folks: It's becoming quite apparent that one of NASCAR's true throwbacks - Sterling Marlin - will be part of the picture this year. And no, not just out there on the fringes, occasionally sticking his head within camera range.

No, by golly, Coo Coo's boy is poking out his hairy chest and planting himself right there on the front row.

A win in the 125-mile qualifier at Daytona, then back-to-back Top 10s to start the year, and a third-place finish Sunday at Vegas, and whaddaya know, Sterling Marlin is sitting atop the Winston Cup points standings.

No, no one will suggest he'll be there in November. Hell, he might not be there this time next week. But he's looking like a man - and the No. 40 Dodge is looking like a car - that'll play a prominent role as this season unfolds before us.

"Hopefully we can get a win," Marlin said Sunday. "We're pecking on the door now. Maybe we can knock it down pretty soon."

That would be a nice happening in a sport that can use some of that right now. In a game that has become increasingly modern and increasingly well-oiled, Marlin is a reminder of a day when drivers grew up working on their own cars, enjoying their free time, and giving yep-and-nope answers.

Prior to the season, Marlin told anyone who would listen how good he felt about this team, which is in its first full season with new majority owner Chip Ganassi pulling the strings.

But try finding a driver who lacks confidence in January. Everyone is a contender in January, and given Marlin's results over the past four years, his confidence was written off as the usual please-the-sponsors monologue.

But perhaps Marlin knew something the rest of us didn't, since he'd been getting a firsthand look at the organizational skills of Ganassi, the four-time CART Series championship owner who bought the majority of Felix Sabates' team last summer.

"The team is a whole lot more organized," Marlin said a few days before the season opened. "You walk in the shop, and people are working. They ain't standing there on the telephone talking and jawing… there's work going on. I think Chip brought that to the table. He wants to win. He's been successful where he's been, and that's kinda instilled in our guys, and I'm looking forward to it."

Ganassi insists he's not as brilliant as some would suggest.

"Absolutely not. I can assure you," he said.

Nor does he possess any secret recipe for cooking up a winner.

"Believe me," said Ganassi, "there's nothing magic about me.

"You guys want to keep talking about Indy and about championships, but you know, that and 50 cents will get you a cup of coffee. There's nothing older than yesterday's news."

But yesterday's news presents evidence of potential. And whatever formula Ganassi used in the CART Series appears to be a crossover hit, so far.

"It's a question of having the right people in the right holes," he said. "I don't think it's that much different. I don't mean to say it's a layup, by any stretch. It's a lot of hard work. From my point of view, it's the same in terms of what an owner does. I'm not the most technical person you'll ever meet in life. I don't get involved with the springs or the cambers and shocks… I don't get involved with all that stuff. I try to hire good people who say they can do that, and let them do it."

Ganassi's top two lieutenants are team managers Tony Glover and Andy Graves, who oversee a two-car operation that includes the No. 01 Dodge driven by rookie Jason Leffler. The key has been the organizational effort, not any re-awakening of Marlin's driving skills - at least that's what Marlin will tell you.

"If you look at what Chip Ganassi has done with his Indy-car stuff - and Andy Graves and Tony Glover have been on some great race teams - that says it all," Marlin said after the Vegas race. "I'm the same guy who had to use a (provisional) spot here last year to get in the race. When you've got good equipment and good people, you can go good.

"I felt like before the season started, with the team we had put together, that we were just laying in the weeds, but we've got a good race team. I thought we could finish in the Top 5 toward the end of the year. Right now, we've got a good jump on it. We'll just have to keep working hard and nailing down the Top 5s and Top 10s and see where it all shakes out in November. A lot could happen."

A lot of it good, too. Welcome back, Sterling. We missed you - and your type.

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