Wednesday, February 21, 2001

Marlin threatened, blamed for Earnhardt's death

Driver says bump wasn't intentional

Enquirer news services

        Sterling Marlin said he “definitely didn't do anything intentional” when he bumped Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500, triggering the crash that killed the stock car racing great.

        The bump and the fatal accident set off a flurry of ugly e-mail to Marlin's Web site, and threats against him and his family have been phoned to his race shop in Mooresville, N.C.

        “Maybe people are frustrated and just looking for somebody to blame. I'd do anything to not be here today, to not address this subject,” said Marlin, speaking for the first time since Earnhardt's death Sunday night.

        “If people just come back to their senses, listen to what everybody's saying and watch the tape, that's all I ask.”

        Earnhardt was killed on the last turn of the last lap of NASCAR's season-opening race, slamming head-on into the concrete wall after making contact with Marlin at the front of a tight pack of five cars fighting for position.

        “We were just racing our guts out on the last lap of the Daytona 500,” said Marlin, a two-time Daytona 500 winner who was a longtime competitor and friend of Earnhardt's. “I've only seen the tape once, but from what I saw, it was a totally racing accident,” he said. “Kenny (Schrader) pulled up to make it three-deep going in, with me on the bottom.

        “Some other guys were closing fast, and I think Rusty (Wallace) got up on him and got him loose. Dale and my car barely touched, and it sent my car across the apron, and Dale's, too. He overcorrected and then I didn't see him again.”

        Marlin somehow kept his car going straight and went on to finish fifth.

        “It was pure luck I caught it,” he said. “When you run across the apron at Daytona at 180 miles an hour, you usually don't come back.”

        Earnhardt didn't, sliding into Schrader. The two of them then slammed into the wall.

        Almost immediately, the threats and e-mails started for Marlin.

        Marlin returned to his home in Columbia, Tenn., Sunday night, turned on his TV “and there's some newscaster saying I gave Earnhardt the "vicious tap' that sent him into the wall. That's the furthest thing from the truth, and it drives you crazy. I would never do anything like that.”

        Marlin said such reports “get the fans stirred up” and perhaps inspired some of the hateful, threatening mes sages.

        Chip Ganassi Racing team spokeswoman Gigi Liberati declined to go into detail about the phone calls and messages and declined to say what kind of security measures have been taken.

        “You have to look at every threat as serious. I obviously can't go into detail about what will be done, but there will be precautions,” she said.

        A patrolman was on duty outside the Ganassi race shop all day Monday. By Tuesday, however, Marlin said the hate mail slowly had turned to messages of support.

        “I didn't look at the computer, but I heard it did have some pretty bad stuff on it,” he said. “Today, I heard it was all reversed. The calls I got, there wasn't a negative call from anybody.”

        Like Marlin, Wallace has been shaken by the death.

        “He and I were about as close friends as you can get in our sport, with the competition and all that goes along with it,” said Wallace, who avoided the sliding cars in Sunday's race and finished third. “I just keep on running that last lap in my mind and keep saying to myself, "Man, if I'd just been able to give him a little tap from the rear ... that could have meant all the difference in the world.' It's just a helpless feeling I have.”

        Marlin agreed with NASCAR's decision to go on with the race in Rockingham, N.C., on Sunday.

        “Dale would want everybody to go and give it 100 percent,” he said. “In part, I dread it. But once you're in the car, nobody is messing with you. Dale had been doing this since he was a kid, and so have I. Getting in that race car is what we do.”

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