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Marlin finishes strong

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Two-time Daytona 500 winner Sterling Marlin of Columbia drove the No. 40 Dodge Charger to an eighth-place finish yesterday.

Marlin started 18th and ran mostly in the middle of the pack before surging in the final quarter of the race.

''The car drove really good today. It got tight a few times on me, but we were able to make the necessary adjustments,'' he said. ''I made some mistakes speeding down pit road and pitting when it was closed.''

Marlin was one of 14 drivers nabbed for speeding on pit road. The penalty: One pass down pit road at 55 mph while the rest of the field is moving along on the track at 185 or so.

Marlin had the highest-finishing Dodge — leading an 8-9-10 Dodge finish — in a top 10 with five Chevrolets.

''That ending was pretty wild. Everybody was bumping and banging. It was some of the wildest driving I'd ever seen,'' he said. ''With four to go I was worried a little bit about my finish. I knew we were going to be OK on those last few laps.

''I wish we could have got up there and mixed it up a little bit, but that was a good run for the first time out with the new Charger.''

Nashville's Bobby Hamilton Jr., making his first Daytona 500 start, struggled most of the day and finished 35th after starting 22nd.

Little drop-off: For Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch, the downtime between winning the points title at Homestead last year and yesterday's Daytona 500 did little to slow him down.

''It was a great feeling being able to jump back into the comfort zone of my Ford, behind the wheel for the biggest race of the year,'' said Busch, who was the Daytona 500 runner-up for the second time in three seasons.

Busch didn't lead a lap but ran among the leaders all day. He and teammate Mark Martin were the only Fords to finish in the top 10.

''I'm not going to kick myself. I finished second today,'' said Busch, who opened his 2004 title season with a 16th-place finish in the Daytona 500.

But he did have one problem.

''I had to use the restroom beyond belief,'' he said. ''We were out there for five hours in the car.''

Caution-ary tale: There were a race record-tying 11 caution flags, a rash of them late in the race.

Things began heating up on lap 183 when Greg Biffle and Scott Riggs bumped in the middle of a pack and ignited a nine-car crash that sent Scott Wimmer's car barrel-rolling and then spinning several times on its nose. Wimmer was not injured.

The race restarted on lap 188, but several cars banged together before even passing the flagstand, sparking an eight-car crash on the main straightaway.

NASCAR managed to get that mess cleared in time for a restart on lap 196, but there was yet another caution waving on lap 198 because of debris on the track.

In a nearly identical situation last spring at Talladega, a heavily partisan crowd angrily threw beer and soda cans and seat cushions onto the track after NASCAR said Jeff Gordon was ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. when the caution came out near the end of the race. Gordon went on to win that race under caution.

That reaction prompted new NASCAR Chairman Brian France to change the rule and allow a two-lap sprint for the win when a caution comes out before the final scheduled lap.

First man out: The engine of Bobby Labonte's No. 18 Chevy blew on lap 15 because of a broken valve or piston, giving Labonte the dubious distinction of finishing last.

''There was no warning at all,'' said Labonte, who is teammates with Tony Stewart and Jason Leffler at Joe Gibbs Racing. ''It's just one of those things. There's nothing you can do about it.''

Celebs: Actor Ashton Kutcher was the honorary starter and was accompanied by his girlfriend, actress Demi Moore. ... Actor Matthew McConaughey said ''Gentlemen, start your engines.'' ... Vanessa Williams sang America the Beautiful and the national anthem. … Red Sox star Johnny Damon and golfer Annika Sorenstam led a host of pro athletes on hand.

Standing O: Of the many luminaries introduced to the drivers at their pre-race meeting, only former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch received a standing ovation.
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