Marlin Living A Cats Life

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Cats have nothing on Sterling Marlin. While they’ve got nine lives, Marlin must have 19; or 20.

On more than one occasion this year, other drivers have had opportunities to overtake Marlin for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series points lead. Each occasion, however, those drivers have failed to get the job done.

Even after he crashed out on Lap 9 of Saturday night’s Chevy Monte Carlo 400 at Richmond International Raceway and finished dead last, the driver of the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge continued to keep the No. 1 spot on the standings, a place he has held since the second race of the season, at North Carolina Speedway.

The crash Saturday night left Marlin a bit bruised, and he expected to lose the points lead, but it didn’t happen.

“We’re going to take a hit,” Marlin said. “We’ve been fortunate all year long in the points. Sometimes this is just the way it goes.”

Marlin’s closest competitor going into Saturday night’s race, Jeff Gordon, had an awful weekend at Richmond. He crashed his primary car in practice on Friday and then his back-up car suffered failure in the valve train Saturday evening and he wound up finishing 40th.

Gordon picked up a few points, but is still 82 markers behind Marlin in the championship chase with 10 races to go.

“It’s just real unfortunate,” Gordon said. “We’re going to have to fight real hard next weekend. This is not going to be a good points night for us, that’s for sure.”

Mark Martin did what he could to overtake Marlin, but it wasn’t enough. Martin finished sixth and is now a mere nine points behind Marlin, the closest anyone has gotten to Marlin all season long.

It was a solid finish, but Martin was still frustrated with Saturday night’s result.

“We had a really great race car (Saturday night), it just got away from us there for a little while,” Martin said. “We lost a little on our setup as the night went on, but it was a strong run overall. We ran great for 300 laps, but we kind of tailed off in the end. Still, we came out and try hard every week and just see where we end up. There’s nothing wrong with a sixth-place finish, but I just wish we’d finished as strong as we ran all weekend and for the first 300 laps.”

Let’s recall Marlin’s miseries, er, fortunes, this season. He finished 43rd on the road course at Sears Point in June, but Gordon finished 37th and Jimmie Johnson 35th. Not much lost.

In the Brickyard 400 in August, Marlin finished a disappointing 27th, but Martin couldn’t make up any ground as he finished 28th. Points lead saved once again.

The very next week at Watkins Glen, Marlin came home 30th. Gordon had an usually miserable day on a road course and finished 22nd while Johnson finished 16th. Martin picked up points by finishing 10th, and Tony Stewart gained a big chunk of ground by winning the race.

At that point, Marlin’s points lead had been cut to 53 over Martin and 56 over Johnson. In fact, the Top 7 drivers were all with 150 points of each other.

In the ensuing three races, Marlin finished sixth, seventh and fourth. Hard to gain any ground there, but Gordon tried. He finished 19th at Michigan and won at both Bristol and Darlington.

Martin, however, finished fifth, 23rd and 11th in those three events.

As it stands now, heading into next weekend’s race at New Hampshire International Speedway, there are six drivers all within 146 points of each other. Yes, despite all of his troubles, Rusty Wallace is still in the hunt in sixth place in the standings.

Wallace was running in the Top 5 but had a tire go down in the waning laps of Saturday night’s race. He was relegated to a 15th-place finish.
“I don't believe it,” Wallace said. “ Man, it’s sickening. Early in the race I had a right-front go down, so I put some more air back in the tire and ran. Then we’d just get out and I was fighting like hell trying to get past those guys and finally got past everybody. I was trying to run Kenseth down and win that race, get that million and, son of a gun, if it doesn’t go down again.
“I felt it about four laps before and I said, ‘Oh God, don’t let this be again,’ and, sure enough, it went down. It’s just sickening, man. I tell you what, I thought it was gonna be a second place for sure and never believed we were gonna lose a tire. We gained points on Sterling and Gordon and tightened the points race up a little bit, but, man, it could have been a lot better than that.”
Johnson, a rookie, remains a steady title contender. He’s third in the standings, 72 points behind Marlin. Gordon dropped to fourth, 82 points behind, and Tony Stewart, despite all of his outside distractions, is hanging tough as well, in fifth, 118 points behind Marlin.

Stewart had perhaps the most disappointing night of them all Saturday night at Richmond. He was running third on the white flag lap when his No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac broke a rear-end gear.

Stewart wound up finishing 30th, while a third-place finish would have given him 92 more points and pulled him within a mere 26 points of Marlin’s lead.

Inconsistency has plagued Stewart over the last 10 races. He has finished 39th twice, 24th once, and 30th once. He’ll have to overcome that in the next 10 races in his quest for his first Winston Cup title.

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