A faded photograph in the Marlin family album shows a tow-headed toddler splashing in the Daytona Beach surf, clinging to his craggy-faced father and pretty young mom.
A later snapshot captures the lanky kid – a teenager now – working on his dad’s race car in the Daytona Speedway infield.
Fast-forward to 1994 and the kid – grown now, with youngsters of his own – is shown celebrating in Victory Lane after winning the Daytona 500. The next year he came back and won stock car racing’s biggest prize again.
Now it’s over. Sterling Marlin doesn’t have a ride for next month’s race.
“Everything has to end sometime,” says Sterling Marlin, 51. “Nothing goes on forever.”
Marlin has been swapping paint at Daytona for some three decades, and before that helped his dad Coo Coo’s Daytona efforts. Last year he just missed cracking the lineup in his qualifying race. This year he won’t even get to try.
“I thought I might have something lined up but it didn’t work out,” Marlin said earlier this week.
Marlin will still be in Daytona doing some PR work for Coors Beer, with a possibility of landing a ride in the second-tier Nationwide Series.
Despite the Daytona disappointment, Sterling is not hanging up his helmet in the Sprint Cup Series. He is scheduled to run “12 to 14” races this year, sharing a ride in James Finch’s No. 9 with Ken Schrader and Mike Bliss.
He will also run some races at Fairgrounds Speedway, where he won three championships from 1980-82.
His son Steadman will run the full Fairgrounds schedule while daughter Sutherlin plans to compete as a rookie on the quarter-mile track. Sutherlin agreed to attend Columbia State if her parents would let her race.
Sterling cut a similar deal with his mother, Eula Faye, a generation ago: go to college and get to race.
Marlin remains one of Middle Tennessee’s most popular sports figures despite last season’s setbacks. He, like his late father, has a reputation for toughness and tenacity, for squeezing first-rate performance out of second-rate equipment.
With over $40 million in career winnings, Sterling could spend his days putting around his sprawling Maury County farm, his niche in NASCAR lore secure. Not many drivers can say they won the Daytona 500. Even fewer can say they won it back-to-back.
But he’s not ready to ride off into the sunset. Whether it’s Daytona with its million-dollar purse and national spotlight, or a Saturday night fender-bender at the Fairgrounds, when the engines begin to rumble and growl, Sterling’s pedal foot starts to itch.
“Oh yeah, I get just as much of a kick out of it as I did back when I was a kid,” he says of the sport that has been part of his life for as long as he can recall.
“I’ve not got it out of my system yet, and I don’t reckon I ever will.”
Larry Woody is a veteran sportswriter in Nashville. He has covered auto racing for almost four decades.