UAW Spells Win For Marlin

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CONCORD, N.C. – On a day when the NASCAR Winston Cup points contenders were less than sterling, a guy named Sterling sure was.

Sterling Marlin blitzed the field Sunday afternoon in the UAW-GM Quality 500 – a race delayed 10 minutes because of the U.S. and British retaliation on targets in Afghanistan –by leading 135 of the 334 laps at Lowe’s Motor Speedway to claim his second victory of the season.

Marlin, who also won at Michigan International Speedway in August, scored his initial victory at LMS, the “home track” of most Winston Cup teams. Marlin hadn’t finished higher than 15th since 1996 at the 1.5-mile quad oval near Charlotte, N.C.

“This ol’ car, we won Michigan with it, and it’s run Top 5 every race,” Marlin said. “It just runs real good…it was good on long runs. Tony (Stewart) was good on short runs. It feels good.

“I’ve won some Busch races and some Winston Opens here at Charlotte. I’ve always run good here, but I never have had much luck in a Cup race here lately. But we put everything together today.”

Marlin stopped after the finish line as his Chip Ganassi Racing crew ran out to celebrate with him. Marlin was handed an American flag to take on a victory lap, but NASCAR told him to go to victory lane.

“I was going to carry it around the track, but NASCAR wouldn’t let us,” Marlin said.

Tony Stewart finished a distant second to Marlin, ending up six seconds behind. Though he led 130 laps, Stewart wasn’t pleased with the result.

“The fans got cheated out of their money today,” Stewart said. “When you’ve got the leader a whole straightaway ahead of second place, and the second-place car is nine seconds ahead of third, that’s not good racing. It’s time to do something about it. These people are paying good money to see us put on a good show, and that wasn’t a good show.”

Ward Burton was even further back in third, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. fourth and Jeff Burton fifth.

Dale Jarrett was sixth, followed by Rusty Wallace, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte. Marlin was so dominant that Jimmy Spencer and Matt Kenseth, who finished 11th and 12th, respectively, barely finished on the lead lap.

Neither Rudd nor Gordon was particularly strong in the first half of the race. Both, in fact, dodged trouble. Rudd bumped into Rusty Wallace and Stacy Compton on pit road, and while the damage wasn’t severe, it did hamper him.

Gordon, meanwhile, lost a lap when a caution came out moments after he made a green-flag pit stop. Gordon made up the lap and then had two close calls on the track. He barely missed Jimmie Johnson, Gordon’s teammate who was making his Winston Cup debut, off Turn 4 on Lap 151.

Later, another teammate, Jerry Nadeau, tangled with Robert Pressley and spun, and though Gordon was close, he slipped through unscathed.

But Gordon again got caught when a caution came out after a green-flag pit stop, and he lost two laps. Gordon made one of those up before the yellow, but he was dropped to 21st when the green flag waved on Lap 233. He made up four more spots before the checkered flag to come home a disappointing 16th.

“We came in one time and got caught in the pits,” Gordon said. “Things really weren’t going our way. We had a pretty good car, but we just had a couple sets of tires that didn’t match up for us. One equalized, and the next set was real, real tight.

“We fought back. It wasn’t the kind of day we hoped for, but Ricky Rudd didn’t have a great day. Points-wise, this was a good day for us, but that’s not the way we want to do it. We want to battle with him for wins.”

Rudd didn’t fare much better. He pitted a lap after Gordon, but when the caution came out, Rudd was caught two laps down. He later lost another lap on the track with an ill-handling car and ended up 21st.

Neither driver led the race, so Gordon gained 12 points in Rudd and now leads by 237 with seven races remaining. Next week’s race is the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, a flat half-mile where both drivers excel.

Mike Wallace, who took over for Jeremy Mayfield in the No. 12 Penske Racing Ford, was running sixth when a pulley came off the engine and threw all its belts on Lap 284. Wallace’s replacement in the No. 7 Ultra Motorsports Ford, Kevin Lepage, ran in the Top 15 most of the day and ended up 13th.

The other replacement driver this week, Bobby Hamilton Jr., struggled all day and finished 33rd, 38 laps down in the Morgan-McClure No. 4 Chevy.

Marlin and Stewart were the class of the field, leading all but 69 laps between them. Stewart was especially quick on fresh tires, but Marlin would run him down as the laps clicked off.

“We had a couple sets of tires that were pretty loose, and it took us a little while to get to him,” Marlin said. “All in all, it was a good car.”

“That was the first time since I’ve been driving Winston Cup cars where we were good the first half of a run and fell off the last half,” Stewart said.

Stewart was also helped by a fast pit crew, which repeatedly got him ahead of Marlin off pit road. But after eight cautions in the first 228 laps, the final 106 laps were run under green, negating Stewart’s fast pit crew.

“The Pontiac just doesn’t have the downforce we need,” Stewart said. “We could put fresh tires and run almost identical lap times to Sterling. Once we would get into traffic where the air was getting dirty, it was just like Indy car racing.

“It’s time NASCAR does something about. NASCAR helped the Dodge earlier in the year. It’s time to give the Pontiac what they deserve. We’re running a five-year old body style that hasn’t had any help for two years now.”

Still, Stewart gave Marlin plenty of credit.

“Sterling drove a great race today,” Stewart said. “He was real patient, and he drove traffic real well. He was very, very methodical about where he was passing those guys. It wasn’t a deal where just because he had more downforce he won the race. He drove a great race. There’s no shame in finishing second to a guy like Sterling.”

The race was delayed by 10 minutes as NBC switched its coverage to TNT in the wake of the U.S. strikes on Taliban military and terrorist operations in Afghanistan.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone in the armed forces overseas,” Marlin said. “Man, go get them guys.”

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