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Marlin hoping for a Sterling Pepsi 400

A word to the wise: Watch out for Sterling Marlin.

No, not because he has sneaked up on everybody in NASCAR Winston Cup racing to narrowly lead the series standings coming into today's Pepsi 400. More so because he's tricky. A prankster. A guy who likes to get you when you least expect it.

"One time he killed this snake he found out back of his house, and he hid it in the grass for like a week. He was going to get Tony (crew chief Tony Glover) with it," said Steve Crisp, a teammate of Marlin's on the Morgan-McClure racing team. "When Tony came around there, Sterling threw it on him because Tony hates snakes. It was so funny."

A two-time Daytona 500 winner at Daytona International Speedway, Marlin seems to be in a perpetual good mood, a guy who is not just happy to be here, but happy to be anywhere.

That has always seemed odd, particularly before 1994 when everyone around NASCAR was wondering whether this unpretentious Tennessee gentleman was ever going to win a race. The Bucs have been closer to winning than Marlin had been.

He was the losingest driver in the sport _ 278 consecutive races without making the left-hand turn into Victory Lane. That was during his journeyman days, when he bounced between three teams.

He has, for unexplainable reasons, settled in nicely with the Morgan-McClure outfit since coming aboard at the start of last season. Marlin had driven for solid teams before _ Junior Johnson and Stavola Brothers _ yet nothing has meshed quite the way this situation has.

Not only has he shattered his winless streak by sweeping the past two Daytona 500s and the TranSouth 500 this year, he has continued to evolve and now fancies himself a series championship contender.

He stands at the midway point in the 31-race season as the point leader, a mercurial leap after his No.

14 finish a year ago. He has a six-point lead over seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt.

"It's just been a combination of things. At the end of last year, we knew we were a better race team. Felt like we were a top-5 race team, but we just had a lot of trouble that knocked us out of races," Marlin said. "This year, the car has stayed under us, we've finished good and won races, and that's what you've got to do to win a championship."

That Marlin has brought the canary yellow No.

4 Chevy Monte Carlo home every race this year after failing to do so seven times a year ago is no singular stroke of luck. At 38, Marlin has learned the first lesson of Championship Driving 101: If you have a 10th-place car, don't try to force it home in first.

"Before, I don't think Sterling was ready to win," said Elliott-Hardy crew chief Mike Beam, who worked with Marlin during his two-year stint with the Junior Johnson team. "We had a good team. We ran second a whole bunch of times, but he just had a lot of hard luck, I think."

Added Marlin, a man with a heavy Southern drawl and modest Tennessee roots: "You can't do anything stupid to take yourself out of the game."

Marlin is far from being stupid. He is a Civil War buff, a guy who rummages through the backwoods of his Tennessee home in search of old bullets and other historic memorabilia.

He also hasn't foolishly blown his approximate $6-million in career prize money. The only indulgences he has allowed himself are a new Camaro, a bulldozer (he bought it used) and a new home."

Marlin's house will feature a 2,000 square-foot basement where he'll store his growing collection of trophies. Cautious atop the series standings, Marlin hopes to add a significant piece of hardware to that basement at the NASCAR banquet where the series champion is crowned.

"I don't know if we'll be at the head table," Marlin said with a grin, "but we'll damn sure be able to see it this time."