Sterling Marlin said he ''definitely didn't do anything intentional'' when he bumped Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500, triggering the crash that killed the stock car racing great. He said it was ''pure luck'' he didn't crash, too.
The bump and the fatal accident set off a flurry of ugly e-mail to Marlin's Web site, and threats against him and his family have been phoned to his race shop in Mooresville, N.C.
''Maybe people are frustrated and just looking for somebody to blame. I'd do anything to not be here today, to not address this subject,'' said Marlin, speaking for the first time since the racing world learned of Earnhardt's death Sunday night.
''If people just come back to their senses, listen to what everybody's saying and watch the tape, that's all I ask,'' he said by telephone from his home in Columbia, Tenn.
Earnhardt was killed on the last turn of the last lap of NASCAR's season-opening race, slamming head-on into the concrete wall after making contact with Marlin at the front of a tight pack of five cars fighting for position.
''I definitely didn't do anything intentional. We were just racing our guts out on the last lap of the Daytona 500,'' said Marlin, a two-time Daytona 500 winner who was longtime competitor and friend of Earnhardt's.
''I've only seen the tape once, but from what I saw, it was a totally racing accident,'' he said. ''Kenny (Schrader) pulled up to make it three-deep going in, with me on the bottom.
''Some other guys were closing fast and I think Rusty (Wallace) got up on him and got him loose. Dale and my car barely touched, and it sent my car across the apron, and Dale's, too. He overcorrected and then I didn't see him again.''
Marlin somehow kept his car going straight and went on to finish fifth in the season-opening race.
''It was pure luck I caught it,'' he said. ''When you run across the apron at Daytona at 180 miles an hour, you usually don't come back.''
Earnhardt didn't, sliding into Schrader. The two of them then slammed into the wall. The 49-year-old Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion and the greatest driver of his era, died instantly of massive head injuries.
Almost immediately, the threats and e-mails started for Marlin.
Chip Ganassi Racing team spokeswoman Gigi Liberati declined to go into detail about the phone calls and electronic messages, and she declined to say what kind of security measures have been taken.
''You have to look at every threat as serious. I obviously can't go into detail about what will be done, but there will be precautions,'' she said.
A patrolman was on duty outside the Ganassi race shop all day Tuesday.
By Tuesday, however, Marlin said the hate mail had slowly turned to messages of support.
''I didn't look at the computer, but I heard it did have some pretty bad stuff on it,'' he said. ''Today, I heard it was all reversed. The calls I got, there wasn't a negative call from anybody.''
Like Marlin, Wallace has been shaken by The Intimidator's death.
''He and I were about as close friends as you can get in our sport, with the competition and all that goes along with it,'' said Wallace, who avoided the sliding cars in Sunday's race and finished third. ''I just keep on running that last lap in my mind and keep saying to myself, 'Man, if I'd just been able to give him a little tap from the rear ... that could have meant all the difference in the world.' It's just a helpless feeling I have.''
Marlin agreed with NASCAR's decision to go on with the race in Rockingham, N.C., on Sunday.
''Dale would want everybody to go and give it 100 percent,'' he said. ''In part, I dread it. But, once you're in the car, nobody is messing with you. Dale had been doing this since he was a kid, and so have I. Getting in that race car is what we do.''
Although no one was seriously injured in the other wreck in Sunday's race -- a 19-car pileup that looked far more dangerous than the accident that killed Earnhardt -- new aerodynamic rules put in place by NASCAR to tighten up on-track competition have come under scrutiny.
Marlin said he likes the fact that, with the new aero package for Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR's longest and fastest ovals, cars can pass and don't have to stay in long lines lap after lap.
On the negative side, it keeps the field bunched up at high speed, and one small slip by one driver can lead to disaster.
''I stayed awake all Sunday night trying to think how you'd fix it,'' Marlin said. ''Maybe we could sit down with some drivers and (NASCAR president) Mike Helton and them and try to fix it.''
The subject came up again Tuesday in a telephone conversation between Marlin and fellow driver Jeff Burton.
''He said, 'How you going to fix it? You've got to fix it somehow.' '' Marlin said. ''They've got to get some way that the best cars that handle good can separate ... from the cars that don't handle good.''
The debate continues to rage over the use of the Head And Neck Support device (HANS), which is worn around the neck and is intended to keep the driver's head from flying forward and hyperextending after a hard impact.
Only a handful of drivers are using it.
Although he has issues with how the HANS device would affect his field of vision while racing and his exit from the car in an emergency, Marlin said, ''I'm going to look at it and try it. I think all the drivers will.''
As for Sunday's race, Marlin said, ''I'd like to go to Rockingham, dominate the race, win and dedicate it to Dale and his family.''
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