Sterling Marlin calls it a career, leaving us with what-ifs

Playing the "what-if" game is cruel in sports, but especially cruel in racing. What if a certain car had never flown through the air two weeks ago? Would Juan Pablo Montoya have caught Kurt Busch?

On a much larger note, the "what-if" question may be etched on the tombstone of Sterling Marlin's racing career, which is now officially over. The venerable driver said he's hanging up the gloves after piddling around the last couple years with start and parks.

(Side note: If you're a NASCAR fan, you have to love the names that his kids have. You can't do any better than Steadman and Sutherlin.)

That "what-if" question goes back to 2002, when Marlin was having the best season of his career. He was fourth in the standings, just 81 points back of Mark Martin heading into Race No. 29 on the schedule at Kansas Speedway. He was in position to potentially take his first -- and what would have ultimately been his only -- Cup championship.

But then this happened:

... and Marlin's season was over. He suffered a severe neck injury in the accident that was enough to sideline him for the remainder of the year. Frankly, Marlin's career was never the same after that. He had four wins and 34 top 10s in 2001 and 2002. In 180 starts after the accident, Marlin scored just four top-5 finishes and only 24 top 10s.

What if Marlin hadn't hit the wall? Would he be not just Sterling Marlin, but rather former Cup champion Sterling Marlin? Would his career have not gone south as quickly as it did? Heck, would Jamie McMurray (who filled in for Marlin when he was injured) have even been in a position to win this year's Daytona 500? (To go a step further, would 2002 champion Tony Stewart even be the star he is today?)

While he wasn't a spectacular driver, winning 10 times in 748 starts, Marlin did win two Daytona 500s, so he'll always be "former Daytona 500 champion Sterling Marlin." It's just a shame that we'll never know how that 2002 season would have played out if Marlin were healthy.

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