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Three in a Row? : Superstitious Marlin Could Make Daytona 500 History With Victory


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Sterling Marlin, who is looking for an unprecedented third Daytona 500 victory in succession, and Dale Earnhardt, who has never won one, have been the focus of attention during SpeedWeeks at Daytona International Speedway.

Marlin believes the best way to achieve their goal of winning stock car racing's biggest prize, a 500-mile race Sunday over the high-banked 2 1/2-mile tri-oval, is to join forces.

"It looks like me and the '3' [Earnhardt] might have to talk to each other and become teammates for the 500," Marlin said after a day of drafting with other cars during practice. "I really haven't run that much with the '3' car until yesterday, but it looks like our Chevrolets are pretty equal.

"If it's hot, handling is going to be a key. You can break 'em off and get away with some guys. There could be a three- or four-car breakaway. If you're going to break away, you need some help, but you don't want some guy who'll slip back in line and leave you out high and dry. . . .

"Us and the '3' are really by ourselves and our cars run good together. We might have to team up and see what happens."

No one, not even seven-time winner Richard Petty, has won the Daytona 500 three times in a row.

Marlin also admits he'll need some luck to win No. 3. Toward that end, he's taking no chances by changing his race-day routine.

What would you expect from someone whose father, Coo-Coo, drove 14 years without a victory ["I didn't win no races, but hot dogs always knew I was a challenge to them"] and whose mother, Eula Faye, had a Dixie drawl so thick that even Southerners believed she was speaking a foreign tongue?

Marlin, 38, who shocked the Winston Cup establishment by winning in 1994 and then repeating last year, plans to make Sunday a mirror image of the last two years.

He is staying in the same room, No. 406, in the same Daytona Beach hotel, the Captain's Quarters Inn.

He will be wearing his same lucky T-shirt, the one his buddies back home in Columbia, Tenn., gave him to wear for the 1994 race, the one he also wore last year.

He will be picked up Sunday morning by John Hood, his brother-in-law, and the two will drive the 11 miles to the Speedway by the same route, stopping at the same fast food restaurant, Krystal's, to order the same breakfast--two sunrise sandwiches and a Diet Coke.

Shortly before the 12:15 p.m. start of the race, Marlin will have the same lunch prepared by his wife, Paula--a bologna sandwich and a Diet Pepsi.

Once the cars are lined up along pit lane and the driver introductions are concluded, Marlin will give his daughter Sutherlin a kiss, climb through the window of the gold-colored No. 4 Kodak Chevrolet Monte Carlo, strap on his helmet and hope his train of good luck will carry him to Victory Lane a third time.

There is another major similarity.

"We had a good run in the Busch Clash [he finished second to Dale Jarrett last Sunday], but we'll have a different car for the 500," Marlin said. "It's the same one we won the 500 with last year. We won a qualifying race, and we won Talladega with it too.

"We're going to use the same engine we won with here last year. We've been saving it on the truck. Runt probably tried 10 engines on the dyno and it showed the best, so that's the one we expect to use."

Shelton "Runt" Pittman has been the engine builder for the Morgan-McClure team since 1989. Ernie Irvan won the Daytona 500 in 1991 with one of his engines, and Marlin won the last two.

"What we did last year worked, so we don't see no reason not to come back and do the same things all over again," Marlin said.

In 38 runnings of the Daytona 500, only two other drivers, Petty and Cale Yarborough, won two in a row. Neither came close to No. 3.

Petty won in 1973 and 1974, but in 1975 he finished seventh, eight laps behind winner Benny Parsons. Yarborough won in 1983 and 1984, but he failed to finish in 1985.

"I hope we haven't used up all our luck at Daytona," Marlin said between test runs. "I've always had good luck here. I don't know about winning No. 3. That's just one of those deals you have to go through before you can really say."

Since he arrived here a week ago to begin practice, Marlin has been swamped by sponsor commitments and questions from the 2,000-plus media horde who all want a private moment with the man of the hour.

"It's something that comes with winning," he said of the media circus. "The fact that so many people want your time is kind of flattering, if you think about it."

Marlin qualified fourth fastest last Saturday, which will put him right behind Irvan in the second row in the second Twin 125 qualifying race today.

Only Earnhardt, who won his first Daytona 500 pole with a lap of 189.510 mph in his Monte Carlo; and Irvan, who did 189.366 in a Ford, are guaranteed their starting positions in Sunday's race.

All the other 40 spots on the grid will be determined by their finish in today's two sprint races.

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