During the late 1960s, Sterling Marlin began entertaining the idea of building a driving career of his own. Like his famous father, he started at Fairgrounds Speedway and made his first start in NASCAR’s premier series in 1976, filling in for his father after he was injured in a crash.
“It was a dream come true to get to drive in the Cup Series,” Sterling Marlin said during a recent telephone interview. “I watched my daddy race when I was little. When I was 13, I started working on his cars. I finally got a chance to drive one on dirt and realized, ‘This is fun.’ So I was in racing from that point on — hook, line and sinker.
Sterling Marlin was crowned track champion at Fairgrounds Speedway in 1980, ’81 and ’82.
Over the next six seasons, he drove in 12 NASCAR Cup Series events for team owners D.K. Ulrich, Jim Stacy, H.B. Cunningham and his father. In 1983, he drove the full schedule, winning rookie-of-the-year honors while driving for team owner Roger Hamby and Sadler Brothers Racing.
Then the call he had waited for all his life came from team owner Hoss Ellington, who had fielded cars for drivers such as Donnie Allison and Buddy Baker.
“I felt like I begged, borrowed or stole as they say to get a ride at times,” Marlin said. “Hoss called me about Christmas of 1985 and wanted me to drive his car. Hoss was the one that gave me my big break. He had a great group of guys there, too.”
Beginning in 1987, Sterling Marlin began driving the full NASCAR Cup Series schedule for team owner Billy Hagan. He moved to Junior Johnson and Associates in 1990 through ’93 but did not win until 1994. While driving for Morgan-McClure Racing, Sterling Marlin collected his first Cup Series victory in the Daytona 500, opening the door for nine more victories, including a second Daytona 500 triumph the following season.
“I was with a great race team,” Marlin said. “Morgan-McClure pretty much had it down pat as far as winning those types of races at Daytona. I knew if I could ever get in that car I could win some races and we did. We had a lot of fun. That was a great group of guys.”
Six of Marlin’s 10 victories came with Morgan-McClure and he won four races with Chip Ganassi Racing, the last coming March 17, 2002, at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
Marlin was challenging for the championship in 2002 when he was injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway and missed the final eight races of the season.
After a final full season in 2006, he made only 37 starts through 2009 and announced his retirement from driving on March 18, 2010.
In 2012, Sterling Marlin revealed he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He has undergone deep brain stimulation procedures at Vanderbilt University Medical Center as part of his treatment. The procedure delivers electrical pulses to brain cells to decrease symptoms of Parkinson’s. Doctors are happy with his progression.
“I am committed to my health journey and working hard on my recovery process,” Marlin said. “I am feeling better and getting stronger every day. As I have said, this is not an overnight process. … I wanted to let everyone know I am feeling better and am continuing to recover.”
For several years, Marlin has fielded late model race cars out of his home shop near Columbia, Tenn. Even after his diagnosis, he continued to win races and hopes to return to the race car once he is cleared by medical professionals.
“I know someday, I gotta quit,” Marlin said in August 2018. “But we got some new cars. (We’ve) got about eight cars right now-about to run out of room. I got a couple guys driving for me. We travel around and see what we can do.”
Racing is all Sterling Marlin has ever known. He is proud of what he and his father accomplished as racers and so are the fans who continue to follow his progress on and off the track.