STERLING MARLIN (No. 40 Coors Light Dodge Intrepid R/T) NOTE: Marlin, who had not finished in the top 10 in the final series standings since 1996, bounced back from a 19th-place finish in 2000 with a third-place ranking to pad his 2001 resume...
STERLING MARLIN (No. 40 Coors Light Dodge Intrepid R/T)
NOTE: Marlin, who had not finished in the top 10 in the final series standings since 1996, bounced back from a 19th-place finish in 2000 with a third-place ranking to pad his 2001 resume that included two victories, a pole, 12 top fives and 20 top 10s with only two DNFs. The 44-year-old driver from Columbia, Tenn., flexed his muscle from the start for the first-year team with co owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates. With finishes of seventh, eighth and third to begin the season, Marlin found himself leading the standings after the first three races. He was the only driver to retain a top 10 position throughout the season. With three top-five finishes to end the '01 campaign, Marlin moved from fifth to third and matched his career-best ranking by the end of the season. Marlin led the way for Dodge in 2001 with 18 top finishes in 36 starts. He scored 83 of Dodge's 158 manufacturers points.
"The more you run, the more you learn in Winston Cup. I learn something every week. Last year we ran some chassis stuff that I would have said would not work before the season started. It was crazy stuff, and there's no way it should have worked. We learned something every race that made the car better. I really didn't surprise myself last year. I felt like after the tests we had before the season started in November and December that the Dodge was a better car than the one we had the year before. We had better equipment, better motors and stuff. I thought if we didn't have any trouble, we could win a couple of races and end up in the top five in the points. That's exactly how it turned out.
"Look back at last year and you coulda, woulda, shoulda. We could have won six races. We won two, but we're going to go into this season thinking we can win every race. We're going to try our best to do that. We had five finishes of 32nd on back. If we could take three of them back, we were running in the top five when we fell out. We would have been right on Jeff Gordon's heels. That's what we've got to do.
"We tore up the transmission at Richmond and we had one motor failure, a rock went through the radiator really and burned the motor up. We got caught up in a couple of wrecks. If we could eliminate of few of those and stay as consistent as we were with the top fives and top 10s, we should be right there.
"Dodge came into the sport last year, and we pretty much overhauled the whole shop. We got our own fab shop. Those guys really got with it. Ernie Elliott and his guys were building the motors, and there's nobody better in my book. We got some brand new cars, good equipment and good people working on them, so that's what it takes.
"It doesn't matter where you qualify at Daytona. If the car is driving good and you mess up in qualifying you can get right to the front. I remember the 4 car here four or five years ago, we qualified about 40th and ended up leading. I think we blew up going for our third straight win. I think Gordon qualified 24th or 25th a few years ago and ended up winning the race. It doesn't matter where you qualify here. If you're not first or second, it doesn't make any difference. The main thing is to get your car driving good and hold it where it's wide open all the way around the track.
"I think we'll still be passing in the Daytona 500. We'll see some two deep stuff and maybe some three deep stuff. I didn't like it the way it was. It was just a madhouse. This kind of puts it back the way it was a few years ago. I wish we could run about 10 mph faster, but we'll see what we've got to work with.
"If you can win the Daytona 500, it makes a good start for the season. I've been fortunate enough to win it a couple of times. There's a lot of prestige that goes along with it if you can win it. Everybody has worked hard over the winter getting prepared to win it. We're going to give it our best shot. It sets the tone for the season. Some guys have won it and finished out of the top 25 in points. Some guys have won it and went on to win the championship. It pays 185 points, but it pays a lot of money to win it and carriers a lot of prestige.
"It's neat to win it. The first one I won was my first race in the Morgan-McClure car. We had about a 15th-place car early in the race and we kept working on it. We got it where it would drive real good and we ended up winning the race. The next year we had a real dominant car. It's a pretty neat feeling. I'm not knocking any other race, but say you win a race at Pocono. If you compare Pocono and Daytona, you definitely want to win Daytona. It's pretty neat to be introduced as a two-time Daytona 500 champion. We hope we can make it three times.
"I'm looking forward to the Budweiser Shootout, too. I've never run it when it's been 70 laps. There'll be some strategy involved. They say you're going to need to get four tires. Hopefully you can have a good pit stop and not lose the lead draft. I think it'll help for the Daytona 500. It'll give you a good idea of what your car is going to do for 500 miles. It'll give you a good idea of what the 500 is going to look like. We're going to run the 005 car that we ran last year for the 500 and we've got a new car for the Budweiser Shootout.
"Our race team is probably a little better prepared than we were this time last year. We only have four or five cars built this time last year. Now we've got 34 (for both teams). I think Chip Ganassi Racing is better prepared overall. We've got pretty much the same motor deal I guess as far as everybody being ready. We were a little short last year on some motor stuff to start the year, but I think we'll be better prepared this year.
"I'm going to worry about putting that Coors Light Dodge in victory circle. I'm not going to worry about anybody else. That's what we did last year. We just worked on our stuff and didn't worry about anybody else.
"There's a lot more prestige that goes along with winning the championship now than there was 20 years ago. The money is great, and it's important. You can count the people who have won championships on one hand here lately. Gordon and Earnhardt and Jarrett and that's about it. It's tough. It's not easy, but this is the best shot I've ever had to win the championship. You need a little luck along the way. We fell out of five races last year or had trouble and finished 32nd on back. If we had three of those back, we would have been right on Jeff's heels. You need to hold it to two bad races if you want to have a shot at the championship. That's all you can have. If you run real consistent and run in the top five and top 10 every week. We had 20 top 10s and 12 top fives last year. In most of the races we fell out of, we were running in the top five when we had trouble.
"We went to a couple of races where we had problems. A wheel got left loose at Sonoma. We ran terrible at New Hampshire the first race. At Charlotte, we were going to run third or fourth and got clobbered on one of the last restarts. We ended up 12th or 13th. We got run over at Texas and turned into the wall. When it's all said and done, we were 20 points behind Tony Stewart. That's one race, three or four spots. You just do all you can do.
"I'd definitely trade those two Daytona 500 wins for a championship. Just add the money up, and that's a no-brainer."
COMMENT ON DALE EARNHARDT INCIDENT IN LAST YEAR'S DAYTONA 500
"I knew we didn't do nothing wrong. It was totally a racing deal, and there was nothing we could do about it. I think once people watched and saw what happened, everything was OK. You had some newscasters that immediately blamed me, and that was the furtherest thing from the truth. Once everybody saw what happened, they knew there was nothing I could have done. Dale Jr. and Childress came to my defense. It was a racing deal, and if the seat belt hadn't broke, Dale would be here today. We just kept doing our deal and tried to win races and went on down the road. It didn't slow us down. It took about two days to die down."