DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. While other drivers spent the final off weekend of the racing season playing in the sun or clicking a television remote, Sterling Marlin was doing what he loves most driving his race car.
He's been the leader of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings since the second race, but he's not relaxing. Marlin spent his time driving laps during a week of testing at two different race tracks.
He spent a couple of days each at the Memphis Motorsports Complex and the Kentucky Speedway. Neither raceway is on the Winston Cup schedule, so both tests didn't count toward the seven test sessions allotted to each team.
Marlin's team wasn't looking to master either speedway. They were looking for a better handle on their Dodge Intrepid as the season prepares to start its 20-race stretch drive Saturday with the Pepsi 400 at the Daytona International Speedway.
A month-long slump, punctuated by a last-place finish at Sonoma, Calif., on June 23, made it necessary for Marlin to turn his off week into a working vacation. The whole purpose of the extended test was to learn more about his Coors Light Dodge and to find different ways to make it respond to ever-changing track conditions.
''We felt like we lost a little something and we weren't sure what it is,'' Marlin said. ''We needed to spend some time with the car to get some things sorted out, to figure out what might work and what won't work in the future.''
Despite his recent problems he's finished out of the top 20 in his last two races Marlin still has a solid 62-point lead over Mark Martin heading into this week's race, and while there are four drivers who could mathematically take the lead in the point standings after the Pepsi 400, Marlin said it's far too early to be concerned with counting points.
''Going into this year, we had the momentum from last year (when he went from fifth to third in the point standings in the final four races) and I felt like we were championship contenders,'' he said. ''Week in and week out you go to the race track and you want to win the race. The points take care of themselves. If you win, or have a top five, a top 10, it all works out. Going into the year, I felt like we could win four or five races and be back in the points championships.''
Marlin still fumes about the season-opening Daytona 500. He bumped with Jeff Gordon on a restart with five laps remaining. The caution for the ensuing accident was followed with a red flag to assure a green flag finish. During the stoppage, Marlin got out of his car on the backstretch and pulled the fender away from his right-front tire. NASCAR imposed a stop-and-go penalty for working on the car during a red flag period, and it cost him a chance to win the race. He was second to Ward Burton when the red flag waved, but he wound up eighth after the penalty.
''In my mind, we won the race,'' he said. ''We just didn't get the money and we didn't get the check.''
A week later, he took the lead in the point standings and he hasn't looked back since, and he's enjoyed being at the top.
''It's good to be in the lead,'' he said. ''We're ahead of schedule from where we were last year. We hadn't won a race this time last year, and we were fifth in points. So much can happen. It's so competitive. In the 80s somebody might run fifth place and finish four laps down. If you look at our races now, you might be four seconds behind. The competition has really increased and it gets tougher late in the year.''
Some prepare for those demands by taking a vacation or resting on the couch. Marlin spent it where he finds the most peace inside his race car.
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