Driver's fortunes have turned south since playing mechanic in 2002.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Sterling Marlin has two Daytona 500 victories, but both are overshadowed by the moment three years ago when he climbed out of his car to fix his fender while the race was stopped.
Hardly a day goes by that the subject doesn't come up.
"Somebody is always asking me about that, thinking it cost me the win," Marlin said. "It's crazy that I can't get away from that because there was nothing I could do. I wasn't going to win the race even if I stayed in the car."
Marlin was leading late in the 2002 Daytona 500 when he and Jeff Gordon smacked fenders. Marlin's crumpled metal was pressing against his tire and would have certainly caused a blowout if it wasn't fixed. When the race was stopped to clean up debris, Marlin jumped out of the car to see just how bad it was.
NASCAR penalized him for playing mechanic, and a chance for a third Daytona 500 victory was gone.
As annoying as the reminders of "Fendergate" are, Marlin would do anything to be back in that position. His career has been on a decline the past two seasons, and he starts 2005 at a critical crossroads: This is the final year of his contract, and team owner Chip Ganassi is demanding improvement this season.
Although Ganassi recently called Marlin "the backbone of our company," he won't hesitate to replace the 47-year-old at the end of the year.
"There is no reason to think if he performs he won't be back," Ganassi said. "I would just like to see him up in the mix a little more. It is unrealistic to ask a driver to win every week, but I don't think it's too much to ask to be in the mix."
Marlin was smack in the middle of it in 2002, when he led the points standings for 25 weeks. Then he broke his neck in a September accident and missed the final seven races of the year. His best shot at a NASCAR championship was over, and Marlin hasn't won since.
His last victory was in 2002, and since then he's scored just 18 top-10 finishes.
Marlin, one of the last true Southern characters in NASCAR, called the slump frustrating. Those close to him said that's an understatement.
"A lot of people get the wrong idea of Sterling, they think he's just a happy-go-lucky country boy from Tennessee," Ganassi team manager Tony Glover said. "But he's a very proud man and he wants to get back to the top of this sport."
Glover and Marlin have been together forever, a pair of Tennessee natives who prefer to fly by the seat of the car instead of what the computer suggests. Together they won back-to-back Daytona 500s in 1994 and 1995.
He wants to race another four or five years, shunning the recent retirement push led by fellow drivers Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace.
But Marlin envisions his exit being more like Olympic wrestler Rulon Gardner, who left his shoes on the mat following his final match.
"I think I'll kind of just pull into the pits and throw my steering wheel out of the window and go on home," Marlin said.