Ibanquet Countdown:/I Sterling Marlin

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We all know how great of a year Jeff Gordon had on his way to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship.

And the exploits of Tony Stewart, Ricky Rudd, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick were all well-documented as well.

But looking at the statistics, the driver who just might have had the most consistent and solid season of them all is Sterling Marlin. He was a surprise to many, considering Marlin is 44 years old and had been coming off four consecutive years of finishing well outside the Top 10 in the Winston Cup points standings.

But Marlin came into the 2001 season with a new team owner, a new car manufacturer and a renewed sense of optimism that helped carry him to two victories and a third-place finish in the final Winston Cup points standings.

It was almost like Marlin, whose previous high finish in the points was third in 1995, was re-born this past season.

“I felt going into this year with the team that (team owner) Chip (Ganassi) put together we’d have a good season,” Marlin said. “We did a lot of testing over the winter and saw what we had. We felt like if we didn’t have much trouble we could end up in the Top 5 in the points, and sure enough, we did.”

Indeed. And Marlin didn’t have much trouble to speak of. He did have five finishes of 32nd or worse, but he had only two DNFs in the Coors Light Dodge, one at Atlanta in March and the last one coming at Texas in early April.

Bobby Labonte had zero DNFs during his Winston Cup championship run in 2000. Jeff Gordon had two DNFs on his way to the Winston Cup title this season.

“We ended up third in the points, and that’s unbelievable,” said crew chief Lee McCall. “We had a phenomenal year. We didn’t expect to be here. We stayed in the Top 10 all year and stayed in the Top 5 toward the end of the year. We kept having to bump our goal up.”

Marlin was the only Winston Cup driver to stay in the Top 10 in the points standings all season. After a 15th-place run in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May, he fell to seventh place in the standings, but that’s as low as he’d go all year. Two races after that, he rose all the way to third.

What made that so “incredible,” using McCall’s words, was the fact that the Chip Ganassi Racing team had switched to Dodge for the 2001 campaign. Dodge was making its first appearance in the Winston Cup Series in more than two decades, and anticipation was for the Dodges to spend the first year back trying to slowly make their way up the ladder.

That was the case with Intrepid teams, for the most part, but Marlin was the exception to the rule. Marlin was the only Dodge driver to finish in the Top 10 and one of only three to finish in the Top 15 in the Winston Cup standings (Ward Burton was 14th and Bill Elliott 15th).

“To me, this was just a whole, completely different race team,” Marlin said. “Chip came in and hired a bunch of people. We hung our own bodies (on the cars), and when we wanted to change something we would change it on 30 minutes notice and not to have wait a week to go change something. All the guys doing the motors did a great job. I had great horsepower. We were just well prepared and well organized. That’s basically it, in a nutshell.”

Marlin showed the Winston Cup world of his team’s prowess when he dominated and won his Gatorade 125-mile qualifier for the Daytona 500. He wound up finishing seventh at Daytona, but it was apparent then that the Coors Light team would have a great deal of success in 2001.

Although Marlin continued to finish in the Top 10 on a consistent basis, Dodge still had not won a race by mid-August, and there was growing concern it might not happen all season long.

Marlin put those fears to rest by taking the checkered flag in the rain-shortened Pepsi 400 at Michigan International Speedway, giving Dodge it’s first triumph in Winston Cup competition since 1977.

“That has to be the highlight of the season for us,” Marlin said. “Giving Dodge its first victory in its own back yard, it was incredible. We knew eventually it would come, and we hoped that it would be the Coors Light team to give it to them. That’s how it worked out, and we were very proud of that.”

Ward Burton put another Dodge in victory lane two weeks later at Darlington, and a month later, Marlin added another at Lowe’s Motor Speedway when he led the final 37 laps of the UAW-GM Quality 500 and took the checkered flag.

Elliott was the only other Dodge driver to win in 2001 (at Homestead), but it was clear that Marlin had paved the way for a fairly successful campaign for the Intrepid contingency.

Marlin finished the season with a fifth-place run at Homestead, and consecutive runner-up finishes at Atlanta and New Hampshire to move into third place in the points.

McCall is projecting a better result in 2002.

“We’re ready for next year,” McCall said. “We’re going to shoot for the championship. There’s no reason we can’t do that if we learn from what we did this year and just improve upon it.”

“I’m excited about finishing third in the points,” said Tony Glover, team manager of Chip Ganassi Racing. “That equals my best, and it equals Sterling’s best. For basically a first-year team, that’s an incredible achievement, and I’m proud to be part of it.”

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  • From the Archives: Darlington
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