Talk about different approaches. One driver takes years to assert his superiority, the other seems to walk into the game and win. One is a stalwart of the “old guard,” the other one of the brash “young guns.” Their battle for the Winston Cup is a graphic illustration of an age line that is beginning to show in NASCAR.
Between 1976 and 1982, Sterling Marlin was barely a blip on the NASCAR Winston Cup radar.
In those years Marlin competed in just 12 races and logged only two top-10 finishes. In the single race he ran in 1976 – he was subbing for his injured father Coo Coo – his day ended in a DNF and the 18-year-old pocketed just $565 for his efforts.
By 1983 the Franklin, Tenn., native was running in the big leagues full-time, but he certainly wasn’t running in the front of the pack. It wasn’t until 1994 that Marlin won his first race, and he won big, taking the checker in the Daytona 500. It was his 279th start.
Then there’s Wisconsin native Matt Kenseth. Kenseth began his short track career at the age of 16, winning his first feature in his third race while just a junior in high school. He quickly became a star in the American Speed Association Series before jumping to the NASCAR Busch Series, and after excelling in the support circuit, he caught the eye of Jack Roush and got a prime Winston Cup ride.
In his first full year on the WC circuit in 2000 he claimed Rookie of the Year honors against one of the greatest freshmen classes in series history. He also won at Charlotte.
Although Kenseth was winless in 2001 he finished 13th in the final standings, and this season he is a legitimate championship threat. His June victory at the Michigan International Speedway made him the first Winston Cup racer to notch three wins this season.
Now the 43-year-old Marlin and 30-year-old Kenseth (who has still only competed less than 100 points events), are battling for supremacy in the most competitive division of motorsports. Marlin has spent some time sitting aloft on the points table this season, and Kenseth is lurking just a handful of points back. Although there are several drivers in the hunt for the 2002 crown, the guy who took 26 years to get to the top and the new guy who seemed to start at the top, have set the stage for a continuing battle on any track NASCAR throws at them. “To be honest, it really doesn’t matter what track I’m at in the sense that I don’t really have a preference,” said Marlin.
But could the track be a major factor on which ones ends the season with more points?
Marlin has two wins in 2002, and 10 overall. Half of his checkers have come at either Talladega or Daytona – the two restrictor plate tracks on the circuit.
“I like speed, and you can run fast at Talladega and you need to run fast,” Marlin said. “We can’t run without restrictor plates because we’d run too fast, but it’d be good to run 200 or 205. I’d like that a lot.”
Marlin’s last three appearances at Talladega have resulted in poor finishes, but the 2.66-mile venue has been very good to him in the past. There were wins in 1992, 1995 and 1996, and in 38 runs at TSS the driver of the Coors Light Dodge has 14 top-10s. In fact, between 1990 and 1992, Marlin never finished out of the top 5 here.
Kenseth has battled the high banks of Talladega just five times, but in the 2001 EA SPORTS 500 he started 24th and finished fourth, proving that the whiz kid of short tracks in the northeast could run fast and wide.
“With the new rule change, we’ve gone to a smaller spoiler,” said Kenseth, who pilots the DeWalt Racing Ford. “You might see racing like Daytona where the field gets spread out. It won’t be like last year when it was a 43-car parking lot, running 200 mph for 500 miles.”
Marlin doesn’t seem to mind representing NASCAR’s “old school.”
“It was a lot tougher then than it is now, but that’s OK,” Marlin said. “It makes you appreciate it a lot more.”
After surviving a near-fatal plane crash in Alabama on April 19, Jack Roush is out of the hospital, undergoing physical therapy and preparing to resume his normal duties as one of NASCAR’s most visible owners.
“I’ve been the survivor of a most horrible accident,” said Roush. “But on the date of my 60th birthday I went into eight feet of water near Larry Hicks’ home. Due to an improbable set of circumstances, I had a lot going for me.”
Roush was in Troy, Ala., to celebrate his birthday with friends. Two of them gave him an ultralight aircraft as a gift.
“I was receiving a birthday present from some friends,” said Roush, an expert pilot who owns several aircraft. “The point of the gift was that, like many of us in the second half of our lives, we wonder what’s going to happen when we can’t do what we’re used to doing. Before that time came, I wanted to know what it was like to have an ultralight airplane.
“I knew you could fly one without a pilot’s license, and I wanted to try it.”
Although Roush’s memory of the accident is sketchy, the experimental plane hit a power line approximately 75 feet off the ground, and Roush’s aircraft landed upside down in eight feet of water.
Fifty yards away from the accident was the home of Hicks, a retired marine who was trained in search and rescue. After he watched the ultralight crash, Hicks jumped in a boat, sped to the scene and dove in the water.
On his third dive, Hicks was able to find Roush, release him from his harness, get him onto the wing of the plane and perform CPR. Roush suffered a closed head injury, along with broken bones and internal injuries. “Larry is a retired Marine guy, and life hasn’t been good for him,” Roush said. “He’s suffered from nose and throat cancer, and we need to remember him in our prayers. But he had this training, so he told his wife he loved her and that he was going to do whatever he could to save this fool who crashed into the water.”
Due to Hicks’ selfless efforts, Roush’s life was saved.
“The care has been unbelievable,” Roush said. “Given my renewed breath there’s more I want to say, but mainly I have to express my thanks to Larry Hicks and his wife for being there, and for the University of Alabama at Birmingham for being there, and NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation and all the people who’ve been there for me.”
Roush, the first Winston Cup owner to field a five-car team when he did so in 1998, is the CEO of Roush Industries, an engineering and prototype development company that services the automotive transportation industry and employs close to 2,000 people.
The Ohio native began his run as a NASCAR Winston Cup owner in 1988, when he hooked up with Mark Martin for the full season. Martin picked up a second-place finish that year and registered his first victory – and Roush’s – in 1989.
Over the next six seasons, Roush and Martin would combine for 17 more wins, and the owner also decided to expand his empire, adding Wally Dallenbach Jr. to the fold in 1992 and Ted Musgrave in 1994.
By 1996 Roush owned cars driven by Martin, Musgrave and Jeff Burton, and one year later the addition of Chad Little made Roush a four-car team owner.
There were times from 1998 through 2000 that Roush actually fielded six-cars, but last year he settled on the combination of Martin, Burton, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch.
Two of Roush’s drivers (Kenseth and Martin) are close to the top in the Winston Cup points chase.
Although Roush’s best points finish is second, his cars have recorded 54 Winston Cup victories, and he has fielded more than1, 250 entries.
Doctors estimate that Roush’s physical therapy will take two to three months to complete, and all the other injuries he suffered in the crash should be cleared up in four to six weeks.
Meet the Drivers
Hometown: Berwick, Pa.
Marital Status: wife, Pat and two children
Drives Target Stores Dodge for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Spencer, whose only two Winston Cup victories came in the 1994 season, is known as “Mr. Excitement” for his wide-one driving style. Although outspoken and competitive, off the track Spencer is known as a gentle giant.
His hobbies include gardening and golf, and when on the links his philosophy is to “hit ’em until you’re happy.”