Injury Changes Drivers Lives

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In the past few days, for better or for worse, the lives of Sterling Marlin and Jamie McMurray have changed drastically.

For worse: Marlin, who led the Winston Cup Series points standings for 27 weeks before losing it after the MBNA All-American Heroes 400 at Dover two weeks ago, was diagnosed this past week by doctors as having suffered a non-displaced fracture of the No. 2 cervical vertabra in his neck as the result of a hard crash at Kansas Speedway last Sunday.

That means that Marlin, who sits in fifth place in the championship standings with just seven races remaining in the season (121 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson) will miss the remainder of the year, leaving him to wonder “what might have been.”

For better: McMurray, who was recently hired to drive a third car for Chip Ganassi Racing beginning in 2003, will have his Winston Cup career learning curve accelerated. It was also announced earlier this week that McMurray, a Busch Series regular, would take over the driving duties of Marlin’s No. 40 Coors Light Dodge for six of the seven races remaining, with the exception of Martinsville. McMurray will be in Memphis with the Busch Series that weekend.

McMurray will make his Winston Cup Series debut Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway in the EA Sports 500. He’ll start from the fifth position after qualifying was rained out Friday.

It’s not the way McMurray wanted to get his Winston Cup career off the ground, but he had to get behind the wheel of a Ganassi car sometime.

“I don’t think anyone wants to get in a racecar under these circumstances,” McMurray said. “It’s going to be a good opportunity for me to get some experience. Just being on the team the last few days at the shop and also this morning, I think they’re as heartbroken as anyone about what’s happened, but we’re just going to go out and give 100 percent each week and do what we can. Sterling will get healed up this winter and come back next season and get to contend for the championship again.”

Making his initial Winston Cup start at Talladega Superspeedway, where the “big wreck” can happen at any time, is un-daunting to McMurray.

“I don’t know that this is the most challenging place (to make his debut) because this is a place where the handling isn’t all that important,” McMurray said. “You’ve got to start somewhere, and if this is where I’m chosen to start, that’s fine. I’m a racer, and I think anyone will tell you all a racer wants to do is racecars and that’s me. This is where I’m going to start and make my Winston Cup debut and that’s fine. I’m happy about it.”

Marlin, on the other hand, is beside himself about the injury. He’s put together perhaps his best season on the Winston Cup circuit since becoming a regular in 1987, with perhaps the exception of 1995, when he finished third in the points and won three races.

It certainly has been his best shot at winning a championship, and now that’s all over with. He wanted to stay in the car, but he wasn’t going to risk a permanent injury if he had taken another hit.

“I’m disappointed,” said Marlin, who has two victories this season. “The guys put so much into it this year. They were really focused on winning the championship, and I was, too.

“It was a deal where I had to get out. Another lick and I could have been paralyzed or whatever. I think my health is more important than the championship. We’ve got a good team. We’ll rebound and come back and get ‘em next year. I told him we’d get some duct tape and just tape me to the seat and cut me loose when the race was over, but they wouldn’t go for it.

“You would want to race, but as quick as I talked to (team owners) Felix (Sabates) and Chip (Ganassi) I knew something was bad wrong. They’d seen the X-rays (on his neck) and stuff. Once I got to Charlotte Tuesday night and they did the CAT scan, we looked at the results and you could see it with your own eyes.

“You’ve got to get out of the car. You could get another lick and be paralyzed or lose your life or whatever. Four to six weeks, it’ll heal up and it’ll be fine. If your arm was cracked or something else, we’d go on and race, but you talk about your spine and that’s a pretty delicate piece.”

At first, Marlin may have wanted to get back in the car, but Sabates and Ganassi were having none of it after seeing the X-rays and talking to the doctors.

“Sterling didn’t have an option,” Sabates said. “We made the call. It was medical decision really. The suggestion was made that Sterling would start every race and drive one lap and get out. That wouldn’t be fair to the race team or Sterling.

“Not only that, you can have a blown engine going 90 mph and get oil on your tires and spin and hit the wall. It took about 13 seconds for us to make the decision to take Sterling out of the car. He said if he hadn't answered the phone call and stayed on the bush hog the other day, he still could be driving. It was the right decision, and we have no regrets about doing it.”

Marlin said he wore the Hutchens device (one of two head and neck restraint mandated by NASCAR for drivers) during races at Richmond and Kansas. Ironically, it was both of those races that Marlin suffered hard accidents.

The other choice of head and neck restraints is the HANS device.

“You look at all the research NASCAR has done and the studies and it looks like the HANS is a little safer deal,” Marlin said. “My chest was so sore I couldn’t wear it. Monday after Dover it felt like I’d wrecked again. I could hardly get my breath. My back was hurting bad before the race last week at Kansas City. It didn’t hurt after the wreck.

“My neck hurt then, but it didn’t hurt bad. I didn't think anything about it. It surprised me after they did X-rays and saw it. If I hadn’t gone and got the X-ray I would be driving right now with a cracked vertebrae. It doesn’t hurt, but I couldn’t get the chest well. It tore everything loose when I hit. There wasn’t anything wrong with the HANS. It was just my chest was so sore from Richmond I wanted it to get healed up. I decided to use the Hutchens and go with the HANS next year.”

Marlin’s injury also takes away any chance of Dodge winning its first Winston Cup championship after coming back into the sport last year. But the company is thinking more about Marlin.

“Our thoughts go out to Sterling and his family,” said Jim Julow, Vice President of the Dodge Global Brand Center. “He has had a great season and really generated a whole new level of excitement in the Dodge NASCAR Winston Cup program among fans, consumers and the 3,000 Dodge Dealers. We wish him a quick recovery and we’re looking forward to seeing him back in the hunt for the Winston Cup championship in 2003.”

Marlin said he’d be at the track and help McMurray as best he can for the rest of the season.

“I'll just hang around Sunday and check ‘em out,” Marlin said. “The way these cars are right now, the chassis change so much on ‘em from week to week. I’ll just try to stay abreast of what they’re doing and if Jamie has any questions I’ll try to help him out. I know he’ll do a fine job for us. I’ll just try to be there to cheer him on.”

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