DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Twenty-six years ago, Dave Marcis looked destined for greatness. The curmudgeonly 60-year-old, who will retire after tomorrow's Daytona 500, was once a Winston Cup star.
On Thursday, Marcis showed flashes of that brilliance when he finished seventh in the Twin 125 qualifiers to earn a starting spot in the 500. He'll be the oldest driver in Daytona 500 history.
In 1976, he was coming off a runner-up finish to Richard Petty in the Winston Cup points race the year before and on his way to a three-win season. Over a five year period in the mid-1970s, he had four top 10 points finishes.
But in 1978, he had a falling out with his then-car owner, Rod Osterlund, over the firing of his crew chief and quit the team.
He told his wife, "The only way to be assured of a job is having your own team.
"And I started mine in 1979 and have been with it ever since," he said. "After that, what happened, I guess, is that when other guys were going after big sponsors, I was busy working on my race car and not paying attention. A lot of time, I only had one employee. I didn't have time to go look for sponsors."
And so he became an independent, a sometimes nonsponsored team with a low budget, a single car and the need to be his own chief mechanic. He has won a total of five races in his career, but only one since he began driving for himself. That was in 1982.
In recent years, he has driven the RealTree Chevrolet and today has four employees.
"It's been hard work, but I don't regret it," said Marcis, sitting in simple surroundings, inside a team hauler on what could be called the back lot of the NASCAR garage.
That's where the smaller teams park. The teams at the lower end of the Winston Cup pecking order, an order based on the points standings. Last year, Marcis competed in just three races and did not make the top 40 in points.
"The only disappointment I can think of is that I never won a championship," he said. "I was second in 1975. It would have been nice to have won one, but it's been a pretty satisfying career.
"I've been dedicated, and all I've wanted was to be a good example. I've kept my life clean."
He was so dedicated, said his wife, Helen, that they raised two kids while living in a trailer for 25 years "while Dave saved for a new garage. It was five years after that that we got a house."
Marcis' commitment to his sport has not gone unnoticed. A retirement party for the "old man" was held Wednesday night at a big beach hotel, and he learned he was getting a lot of loot - hunting and camping gear, a bass boat, a trailer, a four-wheeler, a Jeep and $50,000 from his associate sponsor, Jordan Outdoor Enterprises.
The check had his name on it, but Rusty Wallace joked that was enough money for Marcis to go race in Rockingham, N.C., next week, and the presenter took a pen, scratched out Dave's name and wrote in Helen's.
When, on another day, it was suggested that, at Marcis' age, he should be "riding in the slow lane on the interstate looking for the Early Bird Special," the crusty driver laughed out loud.
"Speak for yourself," he said.
All of which made car owner Richard Childress, who has become something of a mentor to Marcis, shake his head with delight.
"Dave doesn't have any clue of how old he is," said Childress, whose team built the engine in Marcis' Chevrolet for this race. "He's still sharp-thinking and physically he's better conditioned than some of the 30- or 40-year-olds out here. He's worked hard all his life and that keeps him in shape.
"He's the only independent left, and how he kept it going this long is a mystery. He's the only one that could have done it."
Marcis came from Wausau, Wis., in 1968 to run his first Daytona 500 and can't shake his first memory of the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway.
"I couldn't believe the size of it," he said, dressed in his familiar Goodyear cap, dark green shirt and pants and brown wingtips. "And the people ... probably 100,000 people here over the entire week. I'd come from the third- and quarter-mile dirt and asphalt tracks in Wisconsin. It was mind-boggling.
"I'd read about it, heard about it, talked about it - but I still wasn't prepared. You could stand at one end of the front stretch and almost couldn't see the end of the track."
It was a time when race cars weighed 3,900 pounds, not 3,400 as they do today. A time when there was no power steering. A time when it took almost the entire width of the track to force the car through Turn 2 here and not hit the outside wall. It was a time when the windows in the race cars actually worked and drivers were required to keep them rolled up.
"There was no fresh air," Marcis recalled. "I think to be a driver back then, you had to be much more dedicated. The drivers today have it made. I probably feel lucky to be alive."
Tomorrow, Marcis will climb into his car on pit road and ready himself for his last race. It's not a thought he relishes, but he has a sense of pride about it. He didn't have to use any gimmick to get in - no provisional, no owner's exemption. He didn't even have to use his qualifying time from pole day.
No, Dave Marcis earned his way into his last race with a marvelous run in the qualifiers. As a result, he will start 14th today. A respectable position for a respected racer.
What: Daytona 500, opening race of the NASCAR Winston Cup season
Site: Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway
When: Tomorrow, 12:30 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Pole-sitter: Jimmie Johnson