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Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Fatherhood will change a man

By Marty Smith
ESPN.com

Jimmie Johnson
Six-Time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson is a father first and foremost.

Jamie McMurray lived a dream in 2010. He had been at Roush Fenway for a few seasons prior and failed to achieve even a snippet of what was expected. An old friend, Chip Ganassi, gave him another shot -- a last shot in some eyes -- to drive the No. 1 Chevrolet. Some convincing was required to make that happen.

That, then, is beautiful. Because McMurray went on to win the two most prestigious races NASCAR has to offer: the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. He nearly won the Coca-Cola 600, too, finishing second, and then did win the fall race at Charlotte. He won more money by performance that season then he ever did before or has since -- more than $7.6 million in that one season, all said.

Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick and son Keelan are best buddies.

That's poetic. You won't hear a soul say a cross word about McMurray. But all Victory Lane celebrations pale in comparison to the euphoria he felt last fall in Talladega, Ala.

His kids were in the winner's circle with him for the first time.

In fact, his immediate thought upon speeding under the checkered flag amid the chaos was, "Wonder if the kids are up from their nap?" When I asked him about it in Victory Lane later that evening, he got weepy.

That's a daddy for you -- an eaten-up-in-love-with-every-part-of-his-children daddy. An attentive, vulnerable daddy. A great daddy. A them-then-me daddy. There are several of those in the NASCAR driving corps these days.

Fatherhood changes a man like nothing else, and it's most evident in men who have self-centered occupations. Like driving race cars for a living. Or talking on a television. Or singing in smoky bars. Or traveling all over the country to play a game. By nature, athletes aren't programmed to show vulnerability. They're programmed to stomp everything in their path on the way to the goal, whatever the goal may be.

They live with chips on their shoulders. They use any smidgen of doubt others may have in them as fuel. Children may not erase that dynamic completely, but they help prioritize it. Most of that mess is wasted energy, and the second you fall in love with your child, that becomes strikingly evident.

The Sprint Cup driver motor home lot used to be the most silent place at the racetrack. Drivers would exit cars and exit garages and hole up in the bus. There wasn't much interaction, or at least not nearly as much you'd think among a group of guys who do the same exact thing every day and live mere feet apart for 150 days a year.

But that's how it was: To get mine, I can't associate with you readily. Because you're trying to take what I want.

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Then all these kids showed up. Matt Kenseth. Jimmie Johnson. Jeff Gordon. Ryan Newman. McMurray. Elliott Sadler. Greg Biffle. Denny Hamlin. Kevin Harvick. Within a year or two, all of these guys go from me-first to diaper duty. Suddenly, the driver lot is romper room. And the driving corps is tighter knit.

It's amazing how a couple kids on a swing set can dissolve a lot of foolish pride.

Last fall, in discussing Jimmie Johnson, Kenseth said to me that, to his daughters, "He's not Jimmie Johnson. He's Evie's dad." That's fantastic.

I was reminded of all of this Sunday evening in Phoenix. The sun had begun to ease down toward the top of the grandstands, and Harvick had just completed an interview with "SportsCenter." I grabbed the microphone to ask him one final question, and he asked that I hold on a moment.

His publicist handed him an iPhone, and he altered his voice to the playful sweet voice a daddy uses when talking with his toddler. He asked if his little man had seen dada win. He asked if the car looked cool.

And he smiled a different smile. He'd been smiling for an hour in Victory Lane photo upon Victory Lane photo and embrace upon embrace.

But this smile was sweeter. It was wider. It was deeper.

As I watched, I remembered that this is the same dude who jumped cars to grab throats, who lived with a chip on his shoulder for a decade.

Not anymore.

Fatherhood will change a man like nothing else.

***

4 years ago today, my life changed forever as I became a dad.. Happy birthday Wyatt.. Love you buddy pic.twitter.com/HsGIHSsf9D

- Elliott Sadler (@Elliott_Sadler) February 15, 2014

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Whacky Wednesday at Leo's school 2day. Went out 4 lunch. Everyone thought I was the whacky one! Lol pic.twitter.com/Qc0TieclKC

- Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) January 22, 2014