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Tennessee native Marlin welcomed with open arms at Bristol

August 23, 2011, Rick Houston, Special to NASCAR.COM,

Tennessee native Marlin welcomed with open arms at Bristol

Talk about a love-hate relationship.

Sterling Marlin was born and raised in Columbia, Tenn., which is for most folks a five-hour drive or so from Bristol. The way Marlin drives, it's probably closer to four and it's a pretty good bet that he's made it even quicker than that a time or two. Being a home-state boy helped, but there was a lot more to Marlin's popularity in and around Bristol than just that.

For seven years in the mid- to late-1990s, Marlin drove for the Morgan-McClure Motorsports organization that was based in nearby Abingdon, Va. That was one thing, but Marlin also ran a paint scheme to celebrate his beloved school's 1998 NCAA football national championship in both of the track's Busch Series events the following season. When that happened, they might just as well have deeded the place over to him, lock, stock and barrel.

Marlin Motor Speedway ... has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

"It's a track everybody can see around," Marlin said. "It's kind of reminds me of Neyland Stadium [University of Tennessee's hallowed home football turf]. It's built real high, with fans just right up on top looking down on everything. The action's always been pretty good, with good races and tight quarters. It's what the fans like to see."

And as much as fans like to see Bristol in general, it's the facility's event under the lights each August that has always truly captured their attention. Why is that?

"I think all your night races are better," Marlin figured. "There's anticipation all day long that builds up and builds up, kind of like a college football game. Tennessee-Alabama, Tennessee-Florida or whoever is playing at 7 o'clock at night, it gets people fired up. Race Saturday night, spend the night at the track and drive back home Sunday. I think all your race fans just enjoy Saturday-night racing."

Struggles at home

Success on the track at Bristol was nevertheless a sometimes fleeting thing for Marlin, although he did manage to score a win and three other top-five finishes in seven Busch Series starts there. On the Cup side, he tallied just 18 top-10 finishes and three top-fives in 47 starts between 1983 and 2009.

"We had some good runs and some bad runs," Marlin admitted.

Incredibly, the best Bristol Cup finish of his career came in the 1991 night race, a mere four months or so after he was severely burned in a crash between Turns 1 and 2. The incident took place on Lap 422 of the race held at Bristol on April 14, 1991. Marlin's car had been damaged in a wreck earlier that overcast afternoon, and when he spun later on, it exploded in a ball of flames. After rolling to a stop on the apron, Marlin was able to crawl out and collapse to the ground under his own power.

"I think all your night races are better. There's anticipation all day long that builds up and builds up, kind of like a college football game."


Marlin sustained second- and third-degree burns, and wound up turning his Junior Johnson-owned Ford over to Charlie Glotzbach early at North Wilkesboro and Martinsville. He made a full-time return to the car just three races later at Talladega, where he finished fourth.

"I think we came into that race running third in the points," Marlin remembered. "We blew a left-rear tire on the restart getting into Turn 1. At the time, oil tanks were sitting on the left rear and we'd just topped it off with gas. We'd been in one wreck earlier in the day, and it tore the back end about off the car. It more or less just had a trunk lid on it.

"It busted the oil tank. There was a fresh tank of gas. There was enough gas to ignite the oil. It went all through the inside of the car and messed us up there for about a month. I came straight out of the hospital and went to Wilkesboro. I didn't want to get out at Martinsville, but the doctor wanted me to heal up some more. It hurt us in the points a little bit that year, but we still came back to finish seventh [in the standings]."

Busch Series bonanza

When the Tennessee Volunteers captured the national championship in 1998, Big Orange Country went wild. Marlin loves his Vols just as much as the next guy, and when the spring race at Bristol rolled around the next year, he slapped some orange paint and decals on his Chevy and went racing.

He finished eighth that day, and the car design was such a success, it made a return appearance in the night race that August. That time out, Marlin wound up fourth. He also ran the UT colors at Nashville and Memphis that season.

"We went to Bristol, qualified fourth and run in the top five all day," Marlin said. "It was a crowd pleaser. I think the crowd really enjoyed seeing the car orange and white, and I was a Tennessean driving it. I've always been a UT fan, so it worked out really good."

Just how big a UT fanatic is Marlin?

"Well ... I'm pretty big," Marlin said with a laugh. "I really watch football. Pat Summitt does a great job with women's basketball. We had [head coach Bruce] Pearl there, and it really brought men's basketball back to life. I'm still a big-time fan."

Marlin's lone victory at Bristol came in the spring of 2000, when he stepped into a Busch Series entry fielded by his Cup team owner at the time, Felix Sabates. Rookie Dave Steele was entered in the car, but when he popped the wall during the first practice session, Sabates called on Marlin as a last-minute substitute.

A few laps in practice, and Marlin had the crew cover the car. He was good to go.

"The team had another boy driving the car, and he'd done hit the wall twice," Marlin said. "They came got me to drive it. I think we qualified 14th or something [actually it was 16th], took the lead pretty early and pretty much dominated all day. The car would fly.

"We really didn't even plan on driving the car, and the boy hit the wall twice. They beat the dents out, didn't hurt it bad. We straightened everything up, changed a spring or two and away we went."