Commentary

It's time to bring back 'The Six'

Updated: March 16, 2012, 3:25 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

On the morning of the Daytona 500 -- Monday, not Sunday -- I had a conversation with Denny Hamlin about his new pair of shoes. They were super fancy. Noting their fanciness prompted a quip from the gallery about the Chuck Taylors on my feet. They are not fancy and, in fact, are weathered and blemished.

They've earned every scar. They've welcomed babies and flowered graves. They've endured Special Forces training with Jeff Gordon, courtesy of Brick and the boys in the 19th in Austin, Texas. The 19th Group instantly referred to me as Sneakers upon our meeting because they were tickled at the sight of me firing off sniper rounds … prone … in a muddy field … in a pair of Chuck Taylors. They are war veterans who defended us. They can call me whatever they want.

My Chucks have stomped the pit at church revivals from Georgia to Iowa to the hills of Tennessee. They've graced every NASCAR garage the sport has to offer -- and some it offers no longer.

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But they're tired, my Chucks. They've been cussed -- by my bosses when they inadvertently graced your television. They were black at the outset of this journey, with laces whiter than Andy Petree's smile. They're now a faded grayish-brownish hue with soiled laces. My buddies all wear the kind with no laces. I'm not that cool.

The little black stripe that circles the sole is rubbed off, and the iconic metal rings on the insole are ripped. The left rear is flat on the left shoe, the right rear on the right shoe. (I'm a terrible heel-striker.) The top-portion of "All-Star" still adorns the rear of both, albeit barely.

It pains me, but it's time for a new pair.

When I bought this pair, I paid $30. I find they are now $50.

That seems unconstitutional.

That's one-third the cost of DH's Air Jordans.

But upon further consideration, I figure Chuck Taylors are worth my 50 bucks.

Wilt Chamberlain did score 100 points while wearing them, after all. Michael Jordan and his fancy shoes can't say that, right?

Marty,
What do you make of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s performance at Las Vegas? Should we be excited that this is what to expect this year?
-- MaryAnn Watkins, Concord, N.C.

He showed me something on the race's first restart, MaryAnn. He showed me more with a handful of laps to go.

On that restart, Earnhardt was the race leader, starting on the outside of Kevin Harvick, and drove the 88 hard into the corner. Earnhardt takes grief at times for hedging, letting other drivers go rather than racing them. This time, knowing the value of clean air, he stayed on the throttle, cleared Harvick and checked out. It is a subtle decision but noticeable to me.

Late in the race, he slammed into the rear of Mark Martin's car, frustrated, he said, that Martin was impeding his progress. That's atypical of Junior. He's a guy who wouldn't touch Ryan Newman to win the Sprint All-Star Race, a guy who questioned who the hell would wreck The Iceman during the Daytona 500. Junior's not into contact. He's into clean, respectful racing. So his little hello to Martin told me something; he realized how fast his car was and knows how fleeting opportunities for victory are in Cup.

It also told me he's confident, and he senses the opportunity to win. He was ticked. This should tell Junior fans plenty. Many of his fans complain that he doesn't get mad enough, that he's too accepting of mediocrity. Well, there you go.

I suspect it won't be the last time this year he has a shot to win.

Marty,
If you could interview any driver from the past, who would it be?
-- Tracy Burke, Osteen, Fla.

Davey Allison. No driver has ever captivated me like he did. I loved his disposition and smooth driving style. He was the man in black that offset the Man In Black. I'd love to share some North Carolina pulled pork and a cold beer with him, ask him about One Hot Night, the 1988 500 and what the white-front/black-back-with-shiny-gold-numbers 28 Thunderbird meant to him. It meant a lot to me.

I'd want insight on the family legacy. Like Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Davey had a very famous, very successful father. With that comes expectations. Kyle and Junior aren't apt to discuss that pressure, and I don't blame them. Maybe they don't especially feel it, but it's there. I'd love to chat with Davey about that dynamic.

Song of the week

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"

The Band. Robbie Robertson is an amazing writer. Levon Helm's voice is the South set to music. If you're really into The Band's original version, check out Zac Brown's cover on YouTube. It's legit.

Hey Marty,
Any chance we're going to see the GOAT Ricky Carmichael back in NASCAR? Why didn't Monster take him over to KB's?
-- John Geiger, Madison, Ala.

Carmichael wants to compete in NASCAR, but it's about dollars. Monster had backed him for several years at Kevin Harvick Inc. and Turner Motorsports. He thought he'd move with them to Kyle Busch Motorsports, but when Kurt Busch became available, Monster jumped at the chance to align with him. That left RC with no wheels.

Marty,
Based on your Twitter comments you seem like a big documentary film fan. What'd you think of the Magic Johnson 30-for-30?
-- Jack Sebastian, Tallahassee, Fla.

I was captivated, Jack.

[+] EnlargeEarvin 'Magic' Johnson
Mark Davis/WireImageThe recent documentary on Magic Johnson had our man mesmerized.

Sports have a distinct way of unifying people. And dividing them. If you and your brethren love the Pittsburgh Steelers, you fundamentally hate the Baltimore Ravens. If you love Kyle Busch, you fundamentally hate Jeff Gordon. Every fan of every team has his bitter rival.

But even if we loathe a particular athlete and/or team in the competitive arena, it seems we invariably support them in times of need. We were all Yankees fans in September 2001, we were all Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans in February 2001, and we were all Virginia Tech Hokies in April 2007.

I began to contemplate this dynamic while watching "The Announcement," the latest masterpiece in ESPN's 30-for-30 documentary series, which detailed Magic Johnson's shocking Nov. 7, 1991, declaration that he was HIV-positive. That was a moment in my life when time stopped. It was, along with 9/11 and the day Dale died, one of my generation's JFK moments.

Johnson's brief announcement divided the NBA and the country, but ultimately we all rallied around him and his plight. Even Celtics fans.

The film was, naturally, magic. I appreciated its depiction of how vulnerable Johnson felt in the aftermath of the announcement and how terribly foreign it was for him to instantly transition from one of the country's most-beloved and embraced personalities to a pariah. Just like that. The thought of that inner isolation made me sad for him. He's a remarkable guy.

Marty,
What's your favorite NASCAR infield experience?
-- Randy Flannery, Washington

The stories are aplenty, Randy. In October 2003, I camped in the Talladega infield with a couple of reporter buddies. It was one epic turn after another. I took a shower on race day morning in the infield facility. There was a guy showing off the No. 3 tattoo he had stippled where the sun don't shine.

As I said then … I've never been so clean but felt so dirty.

There was the 2008 Daytona 500, when Shannon Spake and I were leaving work after the race. It was 2 a.m., and we happened upon a couple of good ol' boys stumbling along the road. Well, one was stumbling. The other was "asleep" in a Radio Flyer wagon, being dragged around the infield by his wayward buddy.

We pulled alongside them and rolled down the window …

"Hey. How do you get to Speedway Boulevard?" the stumbler slurred.

"Why? What're you gonna do when you get there?" Spake retorted.

He hollered something that needed subtitles. And we laughed. Hard.

But my favorite times are always with my college buddies. They're a bunch of rednecks, a group of six hillbilly poster boys about whom I've written in the past. They answer to such distinguished monikers as Pork Chop, Party Boy, Redsass, JeffGordonMike, DeWalt Jimmy and Griff. They're professionals. And husbands and fathers.

On most NASCAR Sundays, they dip and sip and exchange pleasantries. And holler "Dixieland Delight" into a makeshift karaoke machine in the smoky Martinsville campground just outside Turn 3. They love NASCAR racing, and they love one another. It is fantastic to be around them and experience the dynamic of the relationship. They're in the foxhole together. No matter what.

The best part of the biannual Hillbilly Six Experiment is the trash talk. They all cheer for different drivers. Chop loves Jeff Burton. I mean loves Jeff Burton. Party Boy is a Mark Martin lifer but can't accept the move to Chevrolet and now, Heaven forbid, Toyota. Redsass is a Smoke fan, and Griff holds to his Virginia upbringing by supporting Hamlin.

I figure you can guess who JeffGordonMike and DeWalt Jimmy like. Maybe we should rename him BestBuyJimmy. Or ZestJimmy. OrYourSponsorHereJimmy.

Checkers or wreckers, the email insults fly every Sunday night. And I cry in laughter. It's a passionate reminder every week how blessed I am to do this.

The trash talk, after all, is the best part about watching races with your buddies, isn't it?

Hi Marty,
Of the guys who switched teams in the offseason, who do you think will fare the best this year? I know it's very early in the season, but I'm wondering what your opinion is so far.
Thanks!
-- Teri Summerfeld

Kasey Kahne. His talent + HMS resources = scary potential. This is his moment.

Marty,
The 2013 Charger looks Badass. Who the heck is going to drive one? I don't see Robby Gordon becoming competitive overnight. Someone is going to have to pull a "Penske" and jump ship. I might think Ganassi being a third-tier bowtie behind Hendrick and Childress, but they are vested in EGR engines.
Does MWR open its door to change, like they have done this year with their drivers? However MWR says it now on equal footing with Gibbs. Maybe Dodge picks up Front Row? What team is going to give Dodge a legitimate chance at competing, or is it the other way around?
Thanks Marty,
-- Kyle Eddington, Findlay, Ohio

I love what Brother Duke Ryan McGee suggested this week: Dodge should scoop up Tommy Baldwin Racing, Furniture Row, Front Row and maybe BK Racing. Make it a movement. Roll up your sleeves and gas it up. Smoke the big boys. That's what I'd do.

Closing Thought

Air Jordans made me feel invincible. No athlete has ever inspired me as Jordan inspired me. His will was indomitable. Even after six rings, he still carried a chip on his shoulder. He still felt compelled to prove something. I have always appreciated that. I so adored the Air Jordan V that my pair never touched the outdoors. That shoe's design had a clear bottom that would soil with time if worn on the blacktop. So I would only wear them in the gym. My daddy used to shake his head at me carrying them everywhere. "Boy, I bought those shoes for your feet!" They are my favorite shoes ever.

As an adult, understanding the sacrifice my parents made so I could have them at all makes them even more special.

Thanks for hanging out, Team. It's good to be back.