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. He said it was "pure luck" he didn't crash, too.
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 the racing world learned of 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," he said by telephone from his home in Columbia, Tenn.
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.
"I definitely didn't do anything intentional. 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 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.
Marlin somehow kept his car going straight and went on to finish fifth in the season-opening race.
"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. The 49-year-old Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion and the greatest driver of his era, died instantly of massive head injuries.
Almost immediately, the threats and e-mails started for Marlin, but had abated by Tuesday, Marlin said.
Like Marlin, Wallace has been shaken by The Intimidator's 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."
Others shared the feeling. Flags flew at half-staff and more than a dozen bouquets were scattered in front of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Earnhardt's memory.
Flowers were placed by fans at the fountain in front of the Speedway's Hall of Fame Museum, along with other items such as Earnhardt hats, flags and model cars. One fan, Bob Gerald, 41, said, "I wasn't for him or against him, but he did a lot for the sport."
In seven races at Indianapolis, Earnhardt had three top-five finishes, including his 1995 victory, and won $1,296,305. Only two-time winners Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett and last year's winner Bobby Labonte have won more money at the Brickyard.
Marlin agreed with NASCAR's decision to go on with the race in Rockingham, N.C., on Sunday.
"Dale would want evrybody 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."
|Dale Earnhardt had more victories at Daytona International Speedway than any other driver (34).|
Marlin said he likes the fact that, with the new aero package for Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR's longest and fastest ovals, cars can pass and don't have to stay in long lines lap after lap.
On the negative side, it keeps the field bunched up at high speed, and one small slip by one driver can lead to disaster.
"I stayed awake all Sunday night trying to think how you'd fix it," Marlin said. "Maybe we could sit down with some drivers and (NASCAR president) Mike Helton and them and try to fix it."