The only major stock car race Dale Earnhardt just can't win is the only one Sterling Marlin can.
On Sunday the otherwise hard-knocks Marlin won his second consecutive Daytona 500, this being only the second NASCAR Winston Cup victory of his 19-year career. And Earnhardt, roundly regarded as NASCAR's best driver, with 63 career wins and seven season championships, remained winless in NASCAR's most hallowed event, suffering his 17th straight Daytona 500 loss in even worse than his usual heart-crushing fashion.
Earnhardt finished second, falling a scant .61 of a second short of pulling off what would have been the most thrilling come-from-behind victory in the 37 runnings of the event.
"Maybe after I retire, he can win it then," said Marlin, who had been miffed for days after hearing that members of Earnhardt's team had implied that Marlin wasn't smart enough to repeat his 1994 shocker. And indeed, despite his snakebit history in the race, Earnhardt had been considered the favorite. But as he ruefully said afterward, "This is the Daytona 500. I ain't supposed to win the damn thing."
He didn't win it this time because Marlin and his Morgan-McClure Chevrolet team made no mistakes—not a bobble all race long in the pits or on the track, even after a one-hour-and-47-minute rain delay. Marlin never backed down, not even in the face of Earnhardt's magnificent onslaught in the final 11 laps.
After the 10th and final caution period ended on the 189th of the 200 laps around Daytona International Speedway, Marlin was leading, and Earnhardt was running a seemingly hopeless 14th. Minutes earlier Earnhardt had pitted for four new tires while Marlin had chosen not to pit under the caution. Just at the ripest moment for choking, Marlin and his crew chief, Tony Glover, had gone their calmest.
"I said over the radio, 'Well, what you wanna do?' " Marlin drawled in recollection. "Glover said, 'Well, let's just stay out.' "
Then the storm: Earnhardt made up 12 positions in eight laps, moving into second with three laps remaining. Usually such things happen only in bad racing movies, but Earnhardt darted, plunged, slithered and passed, with some drafting help down the straightaways from Jeff Gordon.
While the crowd of 175,000 stood and roared, Glover drawled softly on the radio, "You better go—he's comin'."
After about seven breathtaking minutes of comeback driving, Earnhardt was on Marlin's bumper, ready to break his Daytona 500 drought in truly spectacular fashion.