HAMPTON, Ga. -- Winston Cup points leader Sterling Marlin is a throwback, a driver more comfortable talking chassis setups with his crew than doing a TV commercial.
And his fans wouldn't want it any other way.
"Who wants to pull for a pretty boy like Jeff Gordon?" said Marvin Sanders, who wore a T-shirt with Marlin's likeness to Sunday's MBNA America 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "Sterling's a real driver, somebody who grew up in the sport and isn't afraid to get his hands dirty working on his car."
It was the latter quality that might have cost Marlin a shot at winning his third Daytona 500 earlier this season.
After Marlin bumped his way past Gordon for the lead with six laps to go -- sending Gordon into a spin in the process -- Marlin's team noticed the right-front fender on its Dodge was rubbing against the tire. A few laps of this would cause the tire to puncture, possibly sending Marlin into the wall.
So when NASCAR threw the red flag and stopped the field to clean up a six-car accident on the same lap as the Marlin-Gordon tangle, Marlin unhooked his seat belts and got out of his car to check on the fender.
Seeing it was against the tire, he began tugging on the sheet metal. Since NASCAR rules clearly state no work can be done to a car during a red flag, an official quickly told Marlin to stop. But the deed was done.
Marlin was penalized and put at the back of the field, and he eventually finished eighth.
"We had to do something," Marlin said with his trademark Southern accent. "We didn't have nothing to lose, because the tire was probably going to blow out anyway, and NASCAR probably would've brought us in before that when the tire started smoking."
Since his adventure on the backstretch at Daytona was shown on national TV, Marlin has become something of a celebrity.
"Everybody has a good laugh about it, telling me just to stay in the car from now on," he said with a smile.
But to fans such as Sanders, it was no laughing matter.
"NASCAR should have let him fix his car," Sanders said. "I wish more of the drivers were like that. That's old school."
Marlin has nine Winston Cup victories, including back-to-back Daytona 500s. He's also won more than $20 million in prize money.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.