Finally A Sterling Starting Spot

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JOLIET, Ill. - The last time this season Sterling Marlin qualified this well – wait, he hasn’t qualified this well all season. The pole at Pocono doesn’t count because he never qualified there. No one did, because a wet track canceled qualifying.

Somehow, Marlin has managed to bounce back from poor qualifying runs to lead the NASCAR Winston Cup points standings. Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, Marlin starts from fourth, the highest he’s qualified all season.

In fact, Marlin has only qualified inside the Top 10 once, when he was sixth at Rockingham.

“We found some stuff when we tested at Kentucky that’s going to help us in qualifying,” Marlin said “We went to Richmond and tested for two days and Kentucky and tested for two days and found some stuff. We worked on some different packages, and I think it’s going to help in qualifying and in the race.

“The way the chassis stuff works now is just nuts. The stuff that’s working shouldn’t be working. I don’t understand what’s changed. It’s the same tire we had last year, but the same setups don’t work. I don’t know if it’s the tracks changing over the winter or the aero stuff changing on these cars, getting more downforce on ‘em. I just don’t know what it is.”

And apparently neither do the powers that be at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“We’ve got some pretty smart people at Chip Ganassi Racing,” Marlin said. “Andy Graves and Tony Glover don’t know what to make of it, either. Two years ago if you had under a car what’s under it now, there wouldn’t be any way you could drive it.”

Somehow, Marlin has done fine with the setups, even though qualifying has been a struggle. That day at Rockingham, Marlin finished second and took over the points lead. Marlin has been atop the standings ever since, though lately his hold has been precarious.

In the last seven races, Marlin has finished outside the Top 10 five times, including finishes of 32rd at Sears Point and 21st at Michigan. But he’s still 77 points ahead of the rest of the pack.

“I thought we could keep getting Top 5s every week,” Marlin said. “We started out pretty strong (five straight Top 10s), and then the chassis started changing on us. I really don’t know where we are compared to the Fords and other makes right now. It looks like the Fords might have a little bit of an advantage.

“I guess we need to go back to the wind tunnel and see what we’ve all got. We’re supposed to have the same car as the Ford, and we go to Daytona and they have 3 inches less spoiler than we’ve got. I guess we need to start fighting harder for some changes.”

Marlin finished third at Daytona for his sixth Top 5 of the season. He leads Mark Martin by 77 and Jimmie Johnson by 114 as the series rounds the corner on the season.

“It’s still too early to dwell on the points,” Marlin said. “We’ve just got to go out and do our deal and try win every week. If we can’t win, then we’ll shoot for a Top 5. If we can’t do that, we’ll go for a Top 10. You can’t run 12th or 15th every week and win the championship.”

This isn’t the time of year to be slipping, and Marlin knows it. The Pepsi 400 at Daytona was the first of an uninterrupted 20-week stretch that will break any championship pretenders.

“We’re prepared for this 20-race stretch,” Marlin said. “We’ve got cars ready to go and motors ready to go. We’ll slip off and go test a couple of days during that stretch. We’ve got two tests left. I’m not sure where we’ll go to test. I’d like to go to Richmond and test under the lights. There’s no need to test in the daytime. Maybe they’ll let us test at night if we pay the light bill.”

Despite 20 straight weekends on the road, Marlin said testing is crucial to success. Sure, the team might be worn down, but Marlin said a team needs to test if it wants to stay up front.

“You’ve got to test to learn stuff,” Marlin said. “If you want to win, you’d better do it. You’ve got to do a lot of things you don’t want to do to win. That’s what we’re in it for. We’ve got a shot here.”

He means Sunday’s Tropicana 400. But he could very well be talking about the Winston Cup title, too.

“We’ve got some good tracks coming up,” Marlin said. “We had a good run at Indy last year. Pocono, Michigan and Darlington are just around the corner, but we’re looking forward to all of them. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens. This 20-race stretch should favor the bigger, more experienced teams, but you never know what’s going to happen.

“We’ll just get all we can get every week and see where it stacks up after Homestead. There’s a lot at stake, but we’re just going to do all we can do and hope that’s enough. Everybody is working hard, but the competition is tough. There’s no room to take a break. When it’s all said and done, we’ll know we gave it 100 percent.”

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