Daytona 500: Sterling Marlin Gets Out Of His Car On The Backstretch To Check For Damage During A Red Flag In 2002

A race car on a track
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Daytona Speedweeks rolls on.

After qualifying for the season-opening Daytona 500 last night, we’ve got the first two starting positions set with Kyle Larson on the pole and Alex Bowman starting beside him on the front row.

Tonight, we’ll get our first look at the new Next Gen car in racing action at Daytona as the pair of 125-mile duel races will set the rest of the field for Sunday’s race.

And as we wait for the race, we’ve been taking a look back at some of the most memorable moments fron the history of the Great American Race.

First we took it back to 1993, to “the Dale and Dale show” battle between Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett that saw Jarrett bring home his first Daytona 500 victory and the first ever NASCAR win for Joe Gibbs racing while his dad called the race from the TV booth.

Then there was Dale Earnhardt’s only win in the Daytona 500 back in 1998, a victory that saw every crew member from every team line pit road to celebrate Dale’s big win.

Yesterday we looked back at Dale Earnhardt’s gritty 1997 Daytona 500 performance, where he flipped his car and was awaiting a ride to the care center in an ambulance when he noticed the wheels were still on the racecar – so he jumped out of the ambulance and finished the race.

And today we’ve got a head-scratching moment from the 2002 Daytona 500, courtesy of Sterling Marlin.

Marlin was, of course, the driver of the “Silver Bullet,” the #40 Coors Light car for Chip Ganassi Racing.

But before we get into that, let’s set the scene:

Held 20 years ago today, on February 17, 2002, the 44th running of the Daytona 500 was the first since the shocking death of Dale Earnhardt the year before. And it was also the first Daytona 500 to feature another future 7-time NASCAR champion: rookie Jimmie Johnson, who sat on the pole that day for his first 500.

A crash with 10 laps to go brought out the caution, and set up what appeared to be a 6-lap shootout.

Jeff Gordon led the field back to the green flag for the sprint to the finish, with Sterling Marlin behind him and Ward Burton in third place (remember single file restarts?) But before the leaders even took the green flag, chaos ensued behind them as cars began crashing and spinning into the frontstretch infield.

Racing back to the start/finish line to take the caution flag, Marlin got a run on Gordon and dove to his inside. But when Gordon moved his car down the track to try to cut Marlin off, he instead chopped the front of Marlin’s car, which sent Gordon spinning through the infield as well.

Marlin had a tire rub and smoke was pouring from his car, but he still managed to beat Ward Burton back to the caution flag and was in the lead as NASCAR threw the red flag and brought the cars to a halt on the backstretch.

But then Marlin pulled a move that left the broadcasters – and likely NASCAR officials – scratching their heads: He jumped out of his car, walked around to the right side of his car to assess the damage, and began pulling the fender away from the wheel to clear the tire rub.

Pace car driver Buster Auton got out of his car and told Marlin to stop, since working on your car under a red flag is prohibited. But it was too late. Because Marlin had touched his car and pulled the fender out, he would be forced to serve a penalty and move to the end of the field when the race restarted.

Marlin ended up coming to pit road once the cars started rolling again, and eventually managed to work his way back up to 8th place by the time the checkered flag flew. But did he cost himself a shot at winning the Daytona 500?

Well, not according to Tony Glover, the team manager for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Glover would later explain that Marlin would have had to pit anyway to fix the damage on the car, sending him to the rear of the field regardless. But by pulling out the fender on the backstretch, Marlin ensured that the car would make it back to pit road and keep the car from being destroyed if the tire blew out before they could fix it.

“After Sterling and Jeff Gordon got together in Turn 1, the right front fender on Sterling’s car was rubbing just bad enough that he was probably going to cut down the tire. We couldn’t take that chance and put him and everyone else in danger.

We were going to have to come in one way or the other, so we had Sterling jump out and check out the damage during the red flag.”

So there you have it. While it seemed like (at the time) a boneheaded move that cost him a shot at winning NASCAR’s biggest race, Marlin’s odd move was actually a planned strategy to save their car and allow them to continue on in the race.

But it’s still one of the more strange things we’ve seen in the Daytona 500.

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock