DARLINGTON, S.C. -- For the first time in years, Sterling Marlin starts every race thinking he can win. Even from the last starting spot in the field.
Marlin extended his dominating start to the season Sunday, coming from the 43rd starting position to win the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400, taking over the lead after an 11-car accident that sent Tony Stewart to the hospital.
It was his second win of the year and 10th of Marlin's career, but four of those have come since Chip Ganassi became his primary car owner before the 2001 season. Before that, Marlin had gone four years without a victory.
''The team I'm with right now is a lot more dominant team,'' Marlin said. ''Week in and week out, when we go to the tracks, we've got as good a chance as anybody to win the race.
''It's a credit to all the guys who do all the hard work at the shop, and to Chip, too.''
Marlin, the series points leader, qualified 11th for the race but was forced to start in the back at Darlington Raceway after his team changed the engine in his Dodge Intrepid.
''We knew we had a problem and couldn't take a chance with it,'' crew chief Lee McCall said. ''So we put our best motor in and started in the rear and watched Sterling drive that thing up through traffic all day long.''
Marlin cut through the field the entire race but didn't move to the front until Stewart, the race leader, and Jeff Gordon, who had the most dominating car, were collected in the late-race accident.
That allowed Marlin to go almost unchallenged over the final portion and hold his lead in the standings. He has a 99-point advantage over rookie Ryan Newman.
''We were patient,'' Marlin said. ''We knew we had a good car and we just didn't take any chances.''
Elliott Sadler finished second, Kevin Harvick was third and was followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Newman.
Stewart, last week's winner, had passed Gordon for the lead on lap 218 and was distancing himself from the rest of the pack by maneuvering around lapped traffic and pinning Gordon behind the other cars.
But as he approached Buckshot Jones to make a pass on lap 227, Jones' car bobbled and moved into Stewart's path. The two collided, sending Stewart's Pontiac into the wall. Gordon hit him from behind.
''Tony was coming back down and I tried to get through the gap but there was nothing but smoke,'' said Gordon, who finished ninth. ''I didn't even know where he was until I clipped him with the right front headlight.''
After hitting the wall, Stewart's car went back down the track as cars continued to collect behind him and he was hit hard on the passenger side by Jimmy Spencer.
''That's as hard as I've hit in a long time,'' Spencer said. ''I got hit pretty hard from behind and pushed into Tony really hard. Lapped cars have just got to realize they've got to get out of the way.''
Stewart's car came to a rest on the track and driver Ken Schrader went to his window to check on him. Schrader began to wave for the ambulance while Stewart's team tried to make contact with him over the radio.
He was removed from the car, and was awake and talking when he was taken to the infield care center, but was airlifted to a Florence hospital after complaining of lower back pain and numbness and tingling in his left foot.
Tests were negative, track spokeswoman Cathy Mock said, and Stewart was admitted for overnight observation because of lower back tenderness. Stewart's spirits were high, proven when he asked the doctor for a pizza and a Coke, Mock said.
''He's hurting pretty good,'' crew chief Greg Zipadelli said. ''They said he was out for a few minutes, but he's alert.''
The rest of the field came in for pit stops after the accident and Marlin came out in front. Gordon, who led a race-high 176 of the 293 laps, needed to repair the front-end damage on his Chevrolet and came out in 12th place.
Marlin led the next 13 laps, briefly lost the lead to Earnhardt, then passed the Chevy to move to the front for good on lap 251.
''Sterling was just too good,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ''I wore my car out, we ran out of tires with about five laps to go. I tried to stay in front of Kevin, but we couldn't do that. We got fourth and we don't normally run good here, so that's good.''
Lapped traffic was a problem for many cars during the race, even early on when Steve Park's comeback was ruined by a wreck.
Park, out six months while he recovered from a brain injury suffered in a wreck here last September, crashed while leading in his first race back.
Park was trying to pass the lapped car of Stacy Compton on lap 37 and had pulled alongside Compton when the two cars touched, sending Park into the wall. Compton hit the rear of Park's Chevy and polesitter Ricky Craven hit Compton.
Park eventually got his car back on the track but finished 39th.
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