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Drivers agree: Marlin's a superspeedway master

Winston Cup races at Talladega Superspeedway usually are hard to handicap.

After all, you've got a track where all the driver has to do is point the car in the right direction and mash the gas pedal to the floor. The driver who can do that the longest, without hitting anything or having a mechanical problem, is the one who wins.

But that's precisely why Sterling Marlin is considered the odds-on favorite today to win the DieHard 500 at the 2.66-mile Talladega oval.

Marlin, who has only six victories in 357 Winston Cup starts, has earned five of them at Talladega and Daytona, NASCAR's two fastest tracks and the only ones where the sanctioning body requires carburetor restrictor plates to slow the cars.

With Sheldon "Runt" Pittman seemingly the only engine builder who has figured out the restricted engines, Marlin is one of the few drivers who can't wait to get to the two big tracks.

"I have a ball at Talladega," said Marlin, who will start 16th in the 42-car field. "You can do a lot of passing. There's a lot of lead changes. It's a real competitive race and you can't really depend on anybody helping you.

"Everybody will be gunning for us," he said with a grin.

Marlin, who also won the Pepsi 400 earlier this month at Daytona, is trying to become the first driver since Buddy Baker in 1975 and '76 to win three straight races at Talladega.

The second-generation NASCAR star _ son of Clifton "CooCoo" Marlin _ dominated in winning both the 1995 DieHard 500 and the Winston Select 500 in May, although in both cases he barely held off Dale Jarrett at the end.

"We've been working awfully hard to improve what we've got," Jarrett said,"because we know we must be a little more competitive if we're going to have a chance of outrunning Sterling here. He's definitely the guy to beat."

Jarrett will start third, right behind first-time pole-winner Jeremy Mayfield and Jeff Gordon.

Another driver to keep an eye on is seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt, who will start fourth. Earnhardt leads all drivers with seven victories here, including five in the summer race.

Earnhardt comes into the 188-lap race trailing leader Terry Labonte by 12 points in the Winston Cup standings.

"Talladega is a very important race to us," he said. "We're behind in the points and we'd like to win the race and get the points lead back.

"I hope it's good and hot and slick (today), so it'll be tough on the drivers," said Earnhardt, who won two of the first five races this season, but is winless in 12 events since.

Labonte, who owns one Talladega victory _ the summer race in 1989 _ will start 29th after an admittedly poor qualifying effort.

"All I can say is we always seem to race well here," the 1984 Winston Cup champion said. "We're going to have to come from way back if we win it."

Today's race

WHAT: DieHard 500.

GREEN FLAG: 1 p.m.

TRACK: 2.66-mile Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

DISTANCE: 188 laps.

POLE-SITTER: Jeremy Mayfield.

DEFENDING CHAMPION: Sterling Marlin.

TV/RADIO: Ch. 10; WFNS-AM 910.

FRY'S PICK: Jeff Gordon.

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