DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The trickle of fuel that kept Ernie Irvan's Chevrolet from stalling in the final yellow-flag lap of the 1991 Daytona 500 deprived Sterling Marlin of what would have been his inaugural NASCAR Winston Cup victory.
Sterling, Clifton "Coo Coo" Marlin's 34-year-old son, still ranks as the best active stock-car driver who hasn't finished first.
But he is becoming accustomed to starting first, particularly on the circuit's longest and fastest speedways.
Yesterday, he outran new Junior Johnson stablemate Bill Elliott by three-100ths of a second to claim the pole for the 34th annual Daytona 500 next Sunday.
Their Ford Thunderbirds will start side by side on the front row. One team claiming the front row is not quite as rare as it would seem. Ken Schrader and Darrell Waltrip qualified their Rick Hendrick Chevrolets 1-2 for the 1989 Daytona 500 and then finished 1-2 in the race, Waltrip winning on a fuel gamble.
The balance of the 500 starting lineup in stock-car racing's premier event will be set by the finishing orders in Gatorade Twin 125-mile races Thursday.
Yesterday, Marlin circled the 2.5-mile tri-oval in 46.823 seconds on his second qualifying lap for a top speed of 192.213 mph. But he knew that Elliott, the king of superspeedway speeds before the advent of horsepower-restricting carburetor plates, had a shot at him.
"I was holding my breath," Marlin said. "During the winter in testing here, Bill's car would pick up a little bit more speed the second lap than mine did."
Because of the carburetor plates, the engines don't generate maximum horsepower through the warmup lap and first flying lap. Almost every driver was quicker on his second qualifying lap yesterday.
But Elliott came up a hair shy of Marlin's speed even on his second lap. His speed was 192.090 mph, and Marlin had his third consecutive pole for events at Daytona or the 2.66-mile Talladega (Ala.) Speedway.
"There's something about this engine," Marlin drawled. "We qualified it down here last July for the Pepsi 400 but raced with another and then qualified and raced it at Talladega in the DieHard 500. We can put another engine on the dynomometer, and it'll show the same horsepower as this one, but this one always is stronger at Daytona and Talladega."
It won't be in the car for the 125-miler Thursday, but it certainly will be next Sunday.
Marlin, a runner-up five times in his Winston Cup career and a top-five runner seven times in his first season with Johnson, has fortified his confidence with his performance at Daytona this month.
Had he won that 1991 Daytona 500, he probably would have been only the second-happiest Marlin. His father, who raises cattle and grows tobacco on a 700-acre farm near Nashville, Tenn., never won an official Winston Cup race in a career as an independent.
"He has been burning the phone up: 'How's it running? How's it running?'" Sterling said. "He's back home. I'm going to give him a call."
"Coo Coo" did win one of the twin qualifying sprints for the 1973 Daytona 500. Sterling was the right-front-tire changer for his dad's team then. "My dad never had the money or the equipment to run up front," Marlin said. "I think if he had had the right equipment, he could have."
Sterling Marlin's career took a quantum leap when Johnson took an interest in him. In his debut with the team, he ran in contention in last year's Daytona 500.
With four laps to go, only Irvan, Davey Allison and Dale Earnhardt were ahead of him. He said he had a pretty good run at Allison and Earnhardt, racing side by side, just as they banged together. He raced by into second place as they skidded out of control. But the crash caused the race to finish under the caution flag.