DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Sterling Marlin had one finger almost touching the Winston Cup championship last season. For 25 weeks, he led the points race, and all he needed was another 1 1/2 months of consistency to bring home the trophy.
It wasn't a little thing that stopped him. It wasn't a better driver in another car. It wasn't a broken car part.
It was a broken body part.
Marlin broke his neck in a hard crash in Richmond, Va., on Sept. 15. But he was so single-minded, he kept driving through pain that "felt like Joe Frazier had you down and hit you in the chest 52 times."
Two weeks later, after another crash at Kansas Speedway, Marlin submitted to tests that revealed a broken vertebra.
The diagnosis ended his season and created a disappointment that would have been hard for anyone to swallow.
For Marlin, 45, who had waited two decades to be considered Winston Cup championship material, it was momentarily crushing.
But he's back now. The old Marlin. Sauntering through the garage, a smile never far from his lips, his blue eyes ablaze with anticipation.
Today, in the Twin 125-Mile qualifying races, he will be back on track. Back in the driver's seat, working to carve out his starting position for Sunday's 45th Daytona 500.
It is a race he has won twice, in back-to-back years. The last time was 1995, and you better believe he is ready to win it again. And he's also ready to take the first step in the battle for this year's championship.
"It was really tough being out of racing last year," said Marlin, who had two wins and 22 Top 10 finishes in 29 races.
"I've been in race cars since I was 16, 18 years old and to be leading the points and have to step back, it was real, real disappointing to me.
"But it makes me more determined, more excited than ever."
The hard part was Marlin didn't feel injured. He had to wear an uncomfortable, plastic neck brace that interfered with everything from talking to eating, as well as driving, but he had no pain.
He came to every race in support of his team, who put rookie driver Jamie McMurray in the seat of his No. 40 Dodge. Marlin stood by when McMurray won in Charlotte, N.C., in October and when he took the outside pole in qualifying in Rockingham, N.C., in November.
"Sterling was very professional," said car owner Felix Sabates. "He showed up at the racetrack every week. He was there for every race. Not a lot of drivers would have done that. A lot of drivers would have gone home and said, 'I'll see you next year.' But not him."
Marlin nods at the memory. "I wanted to go and keep my eye on all the stuff that changes so fast around racing," he said. And when he wasn't there, he was home taking it easy. Watching television. Trying to follow the doctor's orders.
"I've never been so bored in my life," he said. "Physically, I felt fine. But I saw the X-rays. I saw the crack in my bone. It was just a matter of waiting it out."
Marlin knows how to wait things out. Two years ago, after Dale Earnhardt was killed in the Daytona 500, Marlin had to take on a bunker mentality.
He had been behind Earnhardt at the time of the accident, and replays seemed to show his car brushed the seven-time champion's car just before it went out of control.
Though closer examination showed Marlin was not at fault, Earnhardt fans inundated him with threats and ugly mail until Dale Earnhardt Jr. stood up in Marlin's defense.
After his neck injury, the fans again overwhelmed Marlin. But this time, he was awash in love.
"The get-well cards and stuff I received, all the people coming up and genuinely asking, 'How are you feeling?' " said Marlin, wonder still in his voice.
"I couldn't believe how much people cared. There was a card from a family in Virginia who had twins and they named them Sterling and Marlin."
It didn't make waiting to heal any less agitating, but it helped improve his spirits. By the time he arrived here, he was at peace with what had happened to his title run.
"There is nothing you can do about losing the championship," he said. "I got caught in someone else's mess and got injured."
He had only good things to say about Tony Stewart, the man who won last season's title.
"Joe Gibbs [Stewart's car owner] has won three Super Bowls," said Marlin. "He knows about people. He was very fortunate to get Bobby Labonte, who everyone knew was one step away from being something great and who won Gibbs the championship in 2000.
"He had Dale Jarrett, who would have won a title for him if he'd stayed there, even though everyone said he was too old, and Tony Stewart.
"Tony is a great talent. Things happen. Breaks happen."
Breaks happen. Marlin is a racer from the old school, a man who knows his sport's history and knows how good times and bad times weave together to make a career in the game he has chosen to play.
Maybe this is the season the breaks will go his way and he can finally wrap his hand around that elusive championship.
"When you're running good like I was last season," Marlin said and paused, "well, it's the most fun I've ever had - I hope we can get it done."
At a glance
What: Daytona 500, opening race of NASCAR Winston Cup season
Site: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 45, 5
Daytona Twin 125s
Today at Daytona Beach, Fla. Lap length: 2.5 miles
1. (30) Jeff Green, Chevrolet.
2. (31) Robby Gordon, Chevrolet.
3. (21) Ricky Rudd, Ford.
4. (88) Dale Jarrett, Ford.
5. (40) Sterling Marlin, Dodge.
6. (42) Jamie McMurray, Dodge.
7. (25) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet.
8. (32) Ricky Craven, Pontiac.
9. (1) Steve Park, Chevrolet.
10. (22) Ward Burton, Dodge.
11. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford.
12. (41) Casey Mears, Dodge.
13. (17) Matt Kenseth, Ford.
14. (23) Kenny Wallace, Dodge.
15. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet.
16. (10) Johnny Benson, Pontiac.
17. (14) Larry Foyt, Dodge.
18. (7) Jimmy Spencer, Satellite Radio Dodge.
19. (5) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet.
20. (60) David Green, Chevrolet.
21. (11) Brett Bodine, Ford.
22. (4) Mike Skinner, Pontiac.
23. (99) Jeff Burton, Ford.
24. (37) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet.
25. (78) Mike Harmon, Chevrolet.
1. (8) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet.
2. (15) Michael Waltrip, Chevrolet.
3. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet.
4. (18) Bobby Labonte, Chevrolet.
5. (45) Kyle Petty, Dodge.
6. (9) Bill Elliott, Dodge.
7. (6) Mark Martin, Ford.
8. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet.
9. (19) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge.
10. (38) Elliott Sadler, Ford.
11. (74) Tony Raines, Chevrolet.
12. (33) Christian Fittipaldi, Chevrolet.
13. (09) Mike Wallace, Dodge.
14. (0) Jack Sprague, Pontiac.
15. (97) Kurt Busch, Ford.
16. (12) Ryan Newman, Dodge.
17. (01) Jerry Nadeau, Pontiac.
18. (43) John Andretti, Dodge.
19. (54) Todd Bodine, Ford.
20. (49) Ken Schrader, Dodge.
21. (2) Rusty Wallace, Dodge.
22. (77) Dave Blaney, Ford.
23. (02) Hermie Sadler, Pontiac.
24. (90) Kirk Shelmerdine, Ford.
25. (20) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet.