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NASCAR // Marlin the man to beat at Daytona 500

For the past two years, the trailer pulling out of Daytona and heading for Rockingham with the target on its back is the one carrying Sterling Marlin's No.

4 Kodak film Chevrolet.

Marlin, a 19-year veteran of the circuit, solved the Daytona puzzle in 1994 when he won his first-ever Winston Cup race. Then he duplicated the feat last year when he edged out perennial Daytona snakebite victim Dale Earnhardt for his second consecutive Daytona 500 trophy.

That means when he arrived at the 2.5

mile circuit, Marlin already was the favorite in the garage and among the most envied drivers on the grounds.

"There isn't a race on our schedule that has so much attention focused on it," Marlin said. "It's our first race so everybody is trying to win it, and it gets your momentum going and everybody is watching. Daytona kind of sets the stage for who to watch."

This year Marlin, 38, returns to the high-banked oval in a position few drivers ever have _ as two-time defending champion. It's a position that leads Marlin, who also will drive in the IROC series for the first time, to draw comparisons to a couple of childhood idols.

"It put me in the history books with Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty, who I always regarded as heroes of mine," said Marlin, a resident of Columbia, Tenn. "It showed teams we could win and that 1994 wasn't just a fluke, and it showed that we were a good team that had to be beat.

"It will always be the high point of my career. If nothing else, I'll always be remembered as a Daytona 500 winner."

It's difficult to say where Marlin would have ended up if he hadn't joined the Morgan-McClure team in 1994. Before he replaced Ernie Irvan, who left to take over the Robert Yates No.

28 car, some wondered if Marlin ever would win a race.

"We'd wanted Sterling for a long time," owner Larry McClure said. "Even though he hadn't won a race, we knew Sterling had all the talent to make the car go real fast. We thought we were getting a diamond in the rough."

Marlin hopes to continue his assault on the record books Sunday in the 1996 version of NASCAR's Super Bowl.

In preliminary qualifying Saturday, Marlin was fifth behind Earnhardt, Irvan, Dale Jarrett and Jeremy Mayfield.

The pressure is high. If Marlin wins Sunday's race it would mark a new NASCAR standard: three consecutive Daytona titles.

The fact that cars will be equipped with restrictor plates, meant to slow down the cars, can only be seen as a plus for Marlin.

In the four races (two each at Daytona and Talladega) last year that were regulated by restrictor plates, Marlin tallied two wins (the Daytona and Diehard 500s) and a runner-up finish in the Pepsi 400.

"We can't look at it as winning three in a row," Marlin said. "We have to look at it as winning, period. From an oddsmaker point of view, I'd say we have to be favored; the team (including Irvan's victory in 1991) has won three of the last five _ that's a 60

percent chance of winning. If I were a gambling man, I'd take those odds any day."

But, Marlin said, even if it turns out his car doesn't have enough juice to pull past the field, he still has something to look back on when he finally turns in the fire suit and helmet.

"When you look at all the guys who tried unsuccessfully through the years, it's really an accomplishment," Marlin said. "To think that you've won it twice kind of gets your head spinning. If I retired today, I'd be happy knowing I've won the Daytona 500."

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.


Age: 38.

Resides: Columbia, Tenn.

NASCAR seasons: 19.

Car: No. 4 Kodak Films Chevrolet (Larry McClure owner).

1995 victories: 3 (Daytona 500, TranSouth 400, DieHard 500).

1995 rank: 3

Comments: Made Winston Cup debut in 1976, filling in after his father, Coo Coo Marlin, broke his shoulder in a crash. . . . Winston Cup rookie of the year in first full season, 1983. . . . First Winston Cup victory was 1994 Daytona 500, his 278th attempt. . . . Posted nine runner-up finishes before winning first race.