Marlin Looking Good

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I’ve never been one to pat myself on the back, and by all rights, I shouldn’t even go there this early in the season.

But, if I do say so myself, I’m looking pretty good so far on my pre-season prediction of Sterling Marlin winning the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship.

Sure, it’s only 15 races into the year, and sure, a lot can happen in the next 21. But then Marlin has certainly been the most consistent driver on the circuit so far this season.

He’s posted two victories, has five top-five and nine top-10 finishes. Marlin leads surprising rookie Jimmie Johnson by 136 points in the Winston Cup standings.

Why did I pick Marlin prior to the beginning of the season? Simple. I thought the Dodges really were the best car heading into the season, and Marlin’s No. 40 Coors Light team is the best of the Dodge teams.

Marlin won two races a year ago and finished third in the points standings, so he certainly had a lot going for him heading into the 2002 campaign.

I caught a bit of flack from some people for picking Marlin to win it all. “You’ve got to be kidding,” or “you’re out of your mind” were some of the standard responses.

I was glad happy that at least one person didn’t think I was crazy. Nealie Hamilton, Marlin’s public relations rep, called me the day my column on Marlin ran. She said, “I’m glad someone out there in the media gets it. We’re a good team and we’re going to win it all.”

Great minds think alike, I suppose.

Right now, Marlin isn’t thinking about winning a championship, however.

“It’s way too early to think about points,” Marlin said Friday morning. “You worry about it, but you’ve got to finish first. We’re still trying to win races. Every race we go to, we’re going to try to win. If we can’t win, we’re going to pull out a Top 5 and if we can’t get a Top 5, we’ll take a Top 10.

“Last week we started on the pole and the car was way off. We fell back to 20-something and we kept working on the car and finally ran fourth. You take days like that when you’re way off and survive and come back and get a Top 5. It showed a lot of character from our guys on the team.”

And Marlin and his team have certainly shown a great deal of character over the past year and a half. Marlin struggled for four consecutive seasons (one with Morgan-McClure and three with team owner Felix Sabates), not finishing higher than 13th in the points from 1997 to 2000.

He turned things around last year when Chip Ganassi took over the primary ownership of his race team, and he had his first top-five finish in the points since 1995, when he also finished third.

It’s taken a lot of hard work and determination for Marlin to get where he is, but instead of hard work, Marlin said he’s thoroughly enjoying himself this season.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had,” Marlin said. “We hope we can keep it going and win a championship. When you go week in and week out and know you’ve got a shot at winning the race or running in the Top 5, it’s great.

“We’ve been lucky and dodged a couple of wrecks, but we’ve got a good race team put together. We’ve got a great group of guys and Ernie Elliott is doing the motors. They run good week in and week out. We’ve got a good team. We have good pit stops and good cars.”

Consistency? Marlin has certainly been the epitome of that this year. He hasn’t finished lower than 19th in any one race this year (Bristol). Bobby Labonte never finished lower than 26th during his championship season of 2000, and Marlin could very well eclipse that mark.

He’s been in first place in the points standings ever since Rockingham, and no one has really challenged him since. Johnson has had a great season to date, and he’ll most likely continue to do so, but one has to wonder if the rookie can stay on the roll he’s been on and seriously challenge for the championship.

Jeff Gordon is in third in the standings, 165 points behind, but hasn’t shown the championship moxy of years past. Mark Martin is in fourth, but 212 points is a lot to make up, even in 21 races.

Marlin had a bad qualifying effort on Friday and will start from the 39th position in Sunday’s Sirius 400 at Michigan. But then Marlin got his first victory last season at Michigan, so he knows how to race at that track.

Will Marlin be able to hold on for the rest of the season? Time will certainly tell that, but right now, I like his chances. And mine.

By the way, I like to wish all of those dads out there a Happy Father's Day this weekend, including mine in Southern Illinois. Having become a new father myself recently, I'll be celebrating my first. Happy Dad's Day to all.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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