DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Sterling Marlin looked in his rearview mirror and saw a shark. A big, black shark roaring up behind him, eating up the field. But Sterling Marlin, who had won only one other race in his Winston Cup career before yesterday, didn't flinch.
Dale Earnhardt, the shark, may well be stock car racing's newest seven-time Winston Cup champion, but he never had won the Daytona 500, not in 16 previous tries. And Sterling Marlin had.
So when Marlin looked in that rearview mirror, he remembered that. He also remembered a conversation he had had with the crewman of another team on Saturday. Marlin wouldn't name the crewman or the team, but he had no trouble relating the conversation.
"He told me he'd been talking to some of [Earnhardt's crew] and that they had said they were going to win the race and that they weren't worried about me or my team, because they knew we'd make a mistake somewhere along the way," said Marlin after his .61 of a second victory over Earnhardt. "It built a fire under us. It was incentive."
Earnhardt already had incentive. He competes with passion in every race, and he and his GM Goodwrench team were determined to break the 0-for-16 Daytona 500 string.
But on this gloomy day, in a race delayed for 1 hour, 44 minutes because of rain, it was Marlin, in his Kodak Film Chevrolet, who showed an iron will and joined Richard Petty (1973-1974) and Cale Yarborough (1983-1984) as the only back-to-back Daytona 500 winners.
He also became the only driver in Winston Cup history to have his first two victories come in Daytona 500s.
"I wish everyone could sit in my seat and know the feeling," he said. "I wish you all could feel the cold chills as you're coming out of Turn 4 and you're the one who's leading."
Certainly Earnhardt would love to know the feeling, but yesterday, after still another loss, he shrugged.
"This is the Daytona 500," he said. "I'm not supposed to win the thing, I don't reckon."
Instead, Earnhardt's contribution was to make Marlin's second career victory in this 37th Daytona 500 one of the most spellbinding in 500 history, as he pitted with 12 laps to go, re-emerged on the track in 14th position and then, with 10 laps left under green, gobbled up the cars in front of him as if he were playing a game of Pac-Man.
"I saw him coming," said Marlin, who was collecting his second victory in 310 starts. "And I was going to block him any way I could."
Marlin had dominated the race. The only way Earnhardt had been able to get a lead at all, after the first two laps, was to beat Marlin out of the pit on a four-tire change on Lap 161. So when Marlin retook the lead with 19 laps to go, Earnhardt and his crew knew their only chance was to go against the status quo.
When the 10th caution flag came out on Lap 186, Earnhardt went to his pit for four new tires, while everyone else stayed on the track.
"We had to gamble," said Earnhardt's car owner, Richard Childress. "If you don't gamble, you don't win. We all talked about it and decided we'd rather run 10th than sit there and not have a chance to win. The way it turned out, we at least had a shot at it."
When Earnhardt came back on the track, he was in 14th place.
The green flew, and Earnhardt moved to 10th. With eight to go, he was fifth. With six left, he passed Dale Jarrett for fourth, and with three laps left, he passed Mark Martin for second.
And there was Marlin. Straight ahead.
"The only thing that held Dale back when he caught up to Sterling was he didn't have anybody left to help him once he got by me," said Martin. "You needed another car in the draft to have the power, and I didn't have the power to keep up."
They were simply two men alone on the last lap of the biggest race of the season. First one to the finish line wins.
"I had followed Dale up through the field during last Sunday's Busch Clash," Marlin said. "I thought maybe he wouldn't have enough time today. But, like last Sunday, he made the field part like an ocean. And I could see him coming. He got a good run at me out of two, but once I was able to stay low, and make it through there, I knew I had it won because we'd been solid and perfect in turns three and four all day."
Earnhardt had the advantage in turns 1 and 2, but Marlin could outrun him down the backstretch and around the final bends.
"We came from back to front pretty quick," Earnhardt said. "But Mark's right, I needed a little help to get by Sterling and nobody could help if they couldn't stay with you through the corners. If I could have gotten close enough in the corners to make him a little loose, I might have got him. But I didn't. Sterling was awful strong, and I reckon the best car won. Sterling deserved to win."
Marlin averaged 141.710 mph. His crew chief, Tony Glover, said his driver "drove his guts out." Marlin said it was Glover's perfectly prepared Monte Carlo that made the difference.
"It took a perfect race car to beat Dale," allowed Marlin. "Any time you beat old Earnhardt, you've done something."
Yesterday, with a sterling performance, Marlin did something. He made history.