Marlin pushes back into Cup title hunt

Sterling Marlin is acutely aware of how hard it is to win a NASCAR Nextel Cup championship. And he knows that there is the possibility that in 2002, when he led the points race for most of the year, he came as close as he ever will to winning a title.

But he chooses not to believe that. Marlin, who finished fourth Sunday in Bristol and is 10th in the points standings, chooses to keep pushing, convinced that this year could be the one -- regardless of how little momentum he entered the season with.

After a third-place points finish in 2001, Marlin was confident with his No. 40 Dodge team and ready to run for the title in 2002. For much of the season, he did. He went more than 20 weeks leading the points race. It was the closest he had ever come to a title, appearing dominant and unbeatable (points-wise), at times. Then a wreck at Richmond changed everything. Marlin fractured a bone in his neck and was unable to finish the season.

While the injury opened the door for Jamie McMurray to burst onto the scene with a victory in just the second race of his Cup career, it might have cost Marlin his one shot at the title. After all, the competition has closed up considerably in recent years, and to win a title a driver needs the kind of combination of luck and skill that strike never-so-frequently in a driver's career.

Marlin still feels the pain of that season -- which still ended in a fifth-place finish -- and uses it to motivate him. His resolve is so deep that he was quickly able to put last season behind him and is starting this year with a clean slate, ready to once again hang around the top five.

"Last season was one of the most aggravating seasons I have had in a long time," Marlin said. "I had high expectations, but we made some mistakes and we got caught up in other people's mistakes. The Coors Light crew and I are ready to roll our sleeves up and work hard this season."

Last season, seven times he had a mechanical problem or got caught up in a wreck. Once he ran out of gas. Fourteen times he finished outside of the top 20, and he finished 18th in the standings.

"It's one year," Marlin said. "You can't say that (based on one year) it means we won't compete anymore."

Instead, coming into this year Marlin was selling everyone on throwing last season out as the fluke -- not the two years before last. He was telling everybody who would listen that he'd be back in the championship picture this year. Then he went to Daytona and got in a wreck. He started the year off where he left 2003 -- in the doldrums, mired at 37th.

"(It) will be a challenge to be able to show what this team is made of," Marlin's crew chief, Lee McCall, said. "It will also be our chance to bounce back and get back into title contention. Tony (Stewart) was 43rd after the Daytona 500 two years ago, and he came back and won it."

And if there's one driver who knows how quickly something can change -- how quickly, say, one driver could go from first to fifth in the standings -- it's Marlin. And he's ready to apply that line of thinking to keep his team pumped up. Thirty-seventh to first can't be too long a journey, either.

So far, it's proven quite short. Marlin notched his first top five a week later at Rockingham. After his second top five last week at Bristol, the Tennessee native is back in the top 10 of the points standings.

"We had a heck of a car, but it was just a little bit too loose all day," Marlin said Sunday. "The pit crew had some good stops, and all the guys made the right calls in the pits and here we are. We didn't lose anything on that two-tire stop.

"It was pretty good after that. We just needed track position, and we just had about 30 laps on the tires. We decided to gamble and see what we could get. Harvick got us there at the end. He had fresher tires on. Jamie was coming and the rest of them guys had fresher tires. All in all it was a good day for us, and it got us back where we need to be (10th in series standings)."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.