- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2001

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) For good and bad, Sterling Marlin will always claim a significant spot in the Daytona history books. He added another entry on the plus side yesterday.

Marlin won the pole position for tonight's Pepsi 400 on the 10th anniversary of his first Winston Cup pole also at Daytona driving his Dodge around the famed 2.5 -mile track at 183.778 mph.

Ward Burton qualified second at 183.072 mph, followed by Stacy Compton (182.678) and rookie Casey Atwood (182.597), as Dodges swept the top four spots and continued to dominate qualifying at NASCAR's fastest tracks.

Dodge also swept the top three spots in the Daytona 500 and the Talladega 500. Daytona and Talladega are the only two tracks that require carburetor restrictor plates to limit speeds.

The image of Marlin on the pole is fitting for this, NASCAR's somewhat uneasy return to Daytona for the first time since the death of Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500.

It was Marlin's car that made first contact with Earnhardt, as a pack moved between Turns 3 and 4 on the final lap of the Feb. 18 race. Earnhardt slammed into the wall and was killed instantly.

Immediately after the race, many inconsolable fans blamed Marlin. He received nasty letters and e-mails, and even some death threats. He strongly denied doing anything intentional and believes the accident was just a stroke of bad racing luck.

"I think everyone went back and watched what happened, and it's been 100 percent positive," Marlin said of the reaction after the initial uproar. "Tons of Earnhardt fans sent me mail, or would come up to me in the garage and apologize. They didn't do it, but they were apologizing for the few who did."

Not that the accident should be Marlin's legacy at this track.

He started coming here in 1964, riding the back of his father Coo Coo's pickup truck to watch him race. The first time Sterling raced at Daytona, he finished second.

But there were bigger days to come.

Marlin won back-to-back Daytona 500s in 1994 and '95, then won the summertime race in 1996. Combined with a pair of victories at Talladega in '95 and '96, Marlin enjoyed a three-year stint in which he overtook none other than Earnhardt as NASCAR's pre-eminent restrictor-plate driver.

"I love this place, it's been awful good to me," Marlin said. "I've always enjoyed it here. I know the tragedy in February was awful for all of us, but I know Dale would want the show to go on, and that's what we're all here to do."

Winston Cup points leader Jeff Gordon will start fifth in a Chevrolet. Over the last seven years, the driver with the points lead after the Pepsi 400 has won the Winston Cup title. Gordon leads 1999 champion Dale Jarrett by 126 points.

Qualifying was originally scheduled for Thursday night, but was postponed because of rain. Drivers also experienced a 3 hour, 10 minute rain delay midway through yesterday's run.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., qualified after the rain delay and earned the 13th starting position. Kevin Harvick, who took over Earnhardt's car after his death, also qualified late and will start 29th.

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