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Monday, December 18, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: Sterling Marlin

For more than 15 years Sterling Marlin was a consistent force on the Cup tour. From 1987-2002, he won eight races, including back to back Daytona 500’s. He averaged 5 top 5’s and 12 top tens per season during the decade and finished as high as third in the points. His best year, 2002, was cut short by an injury or he may have won his first Winston Cup. Since that year, injury related or otherwise, Marlin’s performance has slipped every year. 2006 marked the fourth straight season with a decline in top 10’s, points rank and laps led. Marlin had one top ten. He hadn’t scored less than four in a year since 1985 when he only ran eight races.

Marlin was essentially put out to pasture in 2005 by Chip Ganassi/Felix Sabates racing and landed with MB/2 motorsports. The year did not go well from the season opener at Daytona. Marlin finished worse than 32nd in the first four races and sunk any serious hopes for competing. By the end of the year Marlin was fighting to stay in the top 35 in owners’ points, a battle he lost.

Marlin had two patches of solid runs spread among the wrecks and poor finishes. In the spring Marlin finished 17th at Bristol, 14th at Martinsville, 12th at Phoenix and 9th at Richmond. The second run came in the fall when he had a 20th (Kansas), 11th (Charlotte), 21st (Martinsville), and 20th(Atlanta). Unfortunately poor finishes surrounded the rest of the year. Marlin had 18 races 30th or worse, and only 9 lead lap finishes.

8 DNF’s were the major reason for Marlin falling outside the top 35. The last three races Marlin suffered two crashes and a blown engine. Marlin had three engine failures during the year, surprisingly high for Hendrick motors. By comparison, the four Hendrick teams lost four engines total.

Despite the frustrations on the track, some good things did happen in 2006. Marlin passed the $40 million mark in career earnings. He also made his 700th Cup start, moving to ninth all-time. The biggest plus was Bobby Ginn purchasing the team. Ginn began the year with partial sponsorship of the #14 car. This only whetted his appetite for NASCAR. Like the old Remington shaver commercials, Ginn liked it so much he bought the company. Ginn made an immediate difference. MB/2 had struggled to fund 2 full-time teams and was considering merging with DEI. Once Ginn bought the company, not only were both cars fully sponsored, the team will expand to three cars in 2007.

Journeyman Slugger Labbe is Marlin’s crew chief. Labbe has not lasted a full season with one team since 2003. He left DEI and Michael Waltrip in 2004 and moved to Evernham in 2005. He helped Jeremy Mayfield make the Chase, but was fired before the year was out. Labbe surfaced at Robert Yates and worked with Dale Jarrett. After a four-race suspension for rules infractions, Labbe was eventually released from Yates mid-season. So Labbe is now on his fourth team in three years, and no one should be shocked if he didn’t last the whole season at Ginn either.

Looking forward, 2007 may be Marlin's final full season. He turns 50 in June and his future might depend on how next year goes. The first five races require Marlin to qualify on speed. With so much competition for seven spots, Marlin faces a tough challenge. Marlin averaged a 23.9 starting position in 2006. Hendrick motors will help in his qualifying quest, although it could cost him practice time in race trim.

Ginn’s money should inject new hope for the operation. The team is now able to afford newer technologies necessary to stay competitive. Expanding to three full-time teams means additional data to share. Marlin can still drive, especially at short tracks. His average finish at the six short track races was 20.5. Richmond was his only top ten finish all year. He also has five career wins at plate tracks and knows how to work in the draft. The team has run well at plate tracks, which bodes well for the start of the year. Marlin’s career has declined, but at choice tracks he is still capable of a strong run. With renewed support and excitement from Ginn, Marlin is capable of entering the top 35 in points. This would go a long towards securing sponsorship for the car. It might also be motivation for Marlin to return in 2008.

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