DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Winston Cup racing has moved onto Madison Avenue, moved into corporate boardrooms and moved out of the Deep South.
But if Sterling Marlin has his way today in the Daytona 500, one of the last remaining Good Ol' Boys will go into the history books as the only driver to win three consecutive Daytona 500s.
It is as if the world of major-league racing has turned upside down. How else to explain Marlin, who has just four victories to his name in an 11-year career, but two of them back-to-back in the Daytona 500?
You could say it must be an easy race. But starting on the pole today will be Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion who has 68 Winston Cup victories but none in the Daytona 500.
Add to the picture the names of Richard Petty, who has seven titles and seven 500 victories, but not three straight. And Cale Yarborough, who won three straight Winston Cup championships and four Daytona 500s, but, like Petty, could not win more than two in a row.
Until two years ago, Marlin couldn't win one. He was the Winston Cup poster boy for what a good sport should be. Before the 1994 Daytona 500, Marlin had started 222 races without crossing the finish line first.
And after he won Daytona, he didn't win again until coming back here in 1995 to win for the second straight time. That put him in the record books with his heroes, Petty and Yarborough, who were back-to-back winners in 1973-74 and 1983-84, respectively.
And now Marlin is going for a three-peat.
Now he has a chance to surpass Petty and Yarborough. And the funny thing is, a lot of other drivers say he can do it.
"I think his chances are wonderful," said Rusty Wallace, who will start last today. "I watched him in the Busch Clash and was impressed.
"Just from watching what has been happening, I think Sterling has the strongest car. I saw how he came from the back in the Clash and rode to the front. Dale Jarrett looks good. Ernie Irvan looks good. But Sterling looks the best to me."
Of course, there is at least one driver who says Marlin won't win today.
"I think Sterling's luck is about to change," said Earnhardt, who hopes his is, too.
Marlin speaks with a soft Tennessee twang and spends his free time collecting Civil War artifacts. This week, he has looked all-comers straight in the eye and said he is not afraid of history, not shy of record books.
"Daytona has always been a favorite track of mine," he said. "I remember coming here in 1964 with my dad. It's like a second home to me, and it's been good to my dad and it's been good to me. . . . Having won here twice before, I can relax and go race hard. We're going to try to go win this thing. We're going to try."
At the age of 37, he's not a hotshot young driver. And having grown up the son of Coo Coo Marlin, he is not exactly "a suit" from up north.
He grew up playing at racetracks while his dad raced.
Coo Coo Marlin was a popular journeyman driver. His only victory Daytona came in a 125-mile qualifying race, with Sterling working on his pit crew.
Coo Coo Marlin never did win a Winston Cup points race, not in 152 tries. So don't think Sterling, who will start third today, is taking anything for granted as he starts the engine of his Chevrolet.
He's taking nothing for granted.
All week he has tried to repeat his every step from the previous two years.
Today, he planned to get up early, go to the same little fast-food restaurant he's been to the past two years and order eggs.
And then he'll take a major street to the speedway. If he has to sit in traffic, that's OK; he sat in traffic last year, and the year before.
And when he gets here, he'll pull on the same T-shirt he wore under his driver's uniform in 1994 and 1995. And then he'll unpack the driver's suit he packed neatly away last year after this race -- the same suit with which he won in 1994 and 1995.
His race car is the same one he drove last year -- and the year before. And the engine is, well, yes, the same.
"Just gave it a little overhaul," he said. "It's not tired or worn out, and neither am I."
In fact, Marlin is eager to take on this challenge. He sees it as bigger than it was the previous two years.
In those races, he says, he depended solely on himself. Now he looks around the playing field and sees himself surrounded by two-car and three-car teams.
"It looks to me like Earnhardt and me might have to talk to each other and become teammates for the 500," said Marlin, who like Earnhardt drives for a one-car team.
"Dale and me are really by ourselves out there, and our cars run good together. We could help each other out -- until the last 10 laps, then everybody's enemies."
Then, all things considered, this 38th Daytona 500 could be one
Daytona 500 lineup
Note: Top two and 31st through 38th by qualifying speeds; 3-30 advanced from 125-mile qualifying races; 39-42 provisional starters based on 1995 car-owner points and 43rd made field as former series champion.
1. Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 189,510 mph. 2. Ernie Irvan, Ford Thunderbird, 189.366. 3. Sterling Marlin, Chevrolet Monte Carlo. 4. Ken Schrader, Chevrolet Monte Carlo. 5. Terry Labonte, Chevrolet Monte Carlo. 6. John Andretti, Ford Thunderbird. 7. Dale Jarrett, Ford Thunderbird. 8. Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet Monte Carlo. 9. Wally Dallenbach Jr., Ford Thunderbird. 10. Ricky Rudd, Ford Thunderbird.
11. Michael Waltrip, Ford Thunderbird. 12. Morgan Shepherd, Ford Thunderbird. 13. Ward Burton, Pontiac Grand Prix. 14. Jeremy Mayfield, Ford Thunderbird. 15. Mark Martin, Ford Thunderbird. 16. Jeff Burton, Ford Thunderbird. 17. Mike Wallace, Ford Thunderbird. 18. Elton Sawyer, Ford Thunderbird. 19. Jimmy Spencer, Ford Thunderbird, 20. Ted Musgrave, Ford Thunderbird.
21. Bill Elliott, Ford Thunderbird. 22. Derrike Cope, Ford Thunderbird. 23. Dave Marcis, Chevrolet Monte Carlo. 24. Loy Allen Jr., Ford Thunderbird. 25. Robert Pressley, Chevrolet Monte Carlo. 26. Steve Grissom, Chevrolet Monte Carlo. 27. Johnny Benson Jr., Pontiac Grand Prix. 28. Dick Trickle, Ford Thunderbird. 29. Kyle Petty, Pontiac Grand Prix. 30. Chad Little, Pontiac Grand Prix.
31. Rick Mast, Pontiac Grand Prix, 188.478. 32. Lake Speed, Ford Thunderbird, 188.159. 33. Kenny Wallace, Ford Thunderbird, 188.045. 34. Jeff Purvis, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 187.711. 35. Bobby Labonte, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 187.438. 36. Ricky Craven, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 186.970. 37. Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 186.737. 38. Geoff Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, 186.459. 39. Bobby Hamilton, Pontiac Grand Prix, provisional. 40. Darrell Waltrip, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, provisional. 41. Brett Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, provisional. 42. Hut Stricklin, Ford Thunderbird, provisional. 43. Rusty Wallace, Ford Thunderbird, provisional.
When: Today, noon
Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.
TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WXCY (103.7 FM), WJFK (1300 AM)
Pole-sitter: Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 189.510 mph.
3' Defending champion: Sterling Marlin