Heads or Tails?

| September 04, 2002

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.”

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