Commentary

Following a legend is no easy task

Updated: March 23, 2012, 8:03 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Ned & Dale JarrettBrian Bahr/Getty ImagesDale Jarrett made papa proud when he won the 1996 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Last week, I devoted a very small portion of this space to Davey Allison and noted the pressure on second- and third-generation drivers such as him, Kyle Petty, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Jarrett to live up to the legacy.

The pressure to do so is unrelenting -- whether the individual charged with the task is conscious of it or not.

That small blurb resonated, given your feedback on the matter. Many of you shared your personal stories of your father's excellence on a given platform and what that meant for your life. As a result, I figured it would behoove me to survey it further, so I phoned Jarrett for firsthand insight on the dynamic.

"You're 100 percent right -- it is always there. Always," Jarrett said. "You try to pass it off as much as possible, but it's brought up so much. Very few times was my name ever -- and to this day -- written or talked about without 'son of two-time champion or Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett' included.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
Geoff Burke/Getty ImagesDale Jarrett on being Dale Earnhardt Jr., above: "He's not only had to handle being son of the seven-time champion, but then his father gets killed in a huge race -- the Daytona 500 -- and he has to handle everything that comes along with that."

"All any of us wanted was a chance to be who we could be, and whatever that brought us. In most cases, whether you're Junior or Kyle or Davey or me, I don't know that any of us could possibly be expected to live up to what our dads did because they were so monumental in each case. Unrealistic expectations are common for us."

That is both a blessing and a curse. Early on, DJ chose to focus on it as a blessing. But there were times it smarted. Such as when he requested sponsor meetings and the sponsor obliged, contingent on his father's presence not only in the meeting but also in the commercials that would come from the meeting.

"That was challenging," he said. "You could get real ticked off about that after you've gotten to a certain level but it continues to happen. You can let that really bother you. But I chose to view it as a cool opportunity to give something back to my dad.

"But having that always around never lets you really get away from that pressure, regardless of what we accomplish personally. If I let that get to me, every time it was brought up -- 'Well, you didn't win 50 races or two championships like your dad,' I'd go crazy. Even if I won 60 races and three championships, it still wouldn't compare to my dad on or off the racetrack."

Nobody, he said, carries that pressure like Dale Jr. does. In discussing it, Jarrett used the word "remarkable" no fewer than five times. Here is his entire explanation of this level of pressure he understands far better than most of us yet still can't fully respect as it pertains to Junior:

"He's done a more remarkable job than can be written or said," Jarrett said. "A lot of people say he's there because of his name. He's done much, much more than that. And if his name wasn't Earnhardt, he'd have made a good name for himself anyway. His situation is very difficult. He's not only had to handle being son of the seven-time champion, but then his father gets killed in a huge race -- the Daytona 500 -- and he has to handle everything that comes along with that.

"So, basically, it's been put in his lap to carry on that name. And it's not like he was named after his grandfather or something. His name is Dale Earnhardt Jr. That is so much to carry along. Never could he live up to the expectations everyone has had, but he's done a fantastic job of taking that on. People say, 'Well, some days he's a little bit cranky.' Let me tell you: You'd get tired of it, too. I promise you you'd be ready to say 'The hell with you.'

"You'd want to ask, 'Can't we talk about something else?' It's all speculation, the questions about 'What would your daddy think, and how would he do it?' That's so difficult to carry. It's not like it comes up every once in a while. It's a weekly basis. Every single week, it comes up about his daddy.

"And this is one of [the] two most famous people, ever, in our sport. I've used the word 'remarkable' many times here. That's the word. He's handled a difficult situation better than 99 percent of us could ever dream of doing. I just can't tell you how hard what he's done is. It's not describable."

Think about that, folks. Digest what DJ just said. That's rock 'n' roll.

Marty,

I'll be honest with you, man. I thought Elliott Sadler was done. With how he's raced the past few years I figured he'd be on Speed full time with his brother by now. Great to see he can still get it done.

-- Randy Farber, Unionville, N.C.

To fully grasp the magnitude of Elliott Sadler's redemption story, a vital -- yet often overlooked -- variable must be deeply considered: He had to relearn the joy of the dream.

Until that fundamental reminder was served, winning again wasn't especially plausible. Suppressing his emotions had stripped his confidence.

[+] EnlargeElliott Sadler
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images Nationwide Series points leader Elliott Sadler has recaptured his passion for racing.

Sitting on the couch of his motor home at Dover this past fall, he lamented to me his prolonged frustration about the previous few years in Sprint Cup, in which he was forced to drive crappy cars for owners who didn't want him. Midway through 2010, he was so emotionally deflated that he'd forgotten how to be great.

He felt slighted -- robbed, even -- and had lost most of the confidence that long defined his gregarious approach to racing and to life.

Yes, he was still a Cup driver then. But, given the situation, he was a mediocre one.

Worse yet, he was an afterthought. In NASCAR, the consummate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport, there's not much worse than being an afterthought.

Enter Kevin Harvick. When Harvick committed to Sadler in the Nationwide Series, Sadler instantly began the process of rebuilding his psyche. No, he didn't win in 2011, and therefore the year was considered a failure in terms of meeting expectations. But Sadler was reinvigorated emotionally. He knew his owner cared. And he was having fun again.

Moving to Richard Childress Racing this season only bolstered him. He told me that the biggest difference is the fact that his cars are built in the same shop as Harvick's and Jeff Burton's Cup cars, which caught his equipment up to the dominant teams: Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

The result is two Nationwide wins in three races. And newfound joy.

But the wins are more than merely the joy of victory.

They are validation, if not vindication.

Everyone likes to be validated. And vindicated.

Marty,

I'm so glad The Six is back! I was in tears reading about your buddies in the campground! I'd love to see you sing karaoke. What's your song? And do you ever camp with them?

-- Abigail Summers, Little Rock, Ark.

I love those boys, Abigail. They're salt. And they are most certainly Idol-worthy on the karaoke machine. In their own minds. The best of the bunch sounds like a hound dog howlin' at the moon. My go-to songs are, in order: "Dixieland Delight," Alabama; "Dust on the Bottle," David Lee Murphy; and "Wanted Dead or Alive," Bon Jovi. Strategically, I've not camped with them overnight. I like my job.

I did, though, camp with my brother-in-law Shaun and his buddies this past Saturday night in Bristol. It was, per usual, an enlightening experience. We coaxed a guy we named Rowdy to climb a hill that made the Talladega banking look like Loudon. He succeeded. Barely. His descent was ridiculous. He scooted all the way down on his behind; looked like a dog with itchy hind parts. And, for his effort, he received a cigar from the Johnson City Shamrock shop and a group photograph with a bunch of dudes he doesn't know.

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We also inadvertently circumnavigated the racetrack property. We were headed to the Red Barn Campground to see my friend Melanie beat the drums with the Southern Drawl Band. From the drag strip campground, it should have been a 10-minute walk. It wasn't. More like 40. As my buddy said: one mile as the crow flies; five miles as the dog tracks.

By the time we did finally arrive, they were finished performing. Apparently, some guy got defend-my-woman syndrome and shut the party down with one haymaker.

Sunday morning, sometime around 5:30, I was standing shirtless in the Bristol Motor Speedway drag strip campground bathroom facility, face lathered thick with cold shaving cream, dragging a dull blade across my face with cold water. There were two other guys in there. They looked rougher'n 60-grit sandpaper. It was quite obvious they'd gone rounds with Jack or Bud, and lost handily.

They sidle up on either side of me, crank up the sinks and commence to freshening up the funk, then one turns toward me and stares.

"Marty … what the hell are you doing here?" he said.

"Shaving."

I reckon he considered that a keen enough answer and left me to finish raking my face off with a butter knife.

Minutes later, as I departed in shirt and tie to face the high-definition devil, he hollered at me again. When he did, I'd have bet the farm this was coming:

"Hey, Marty … hey, man … hey … how's Junior gon' do?"

When I arrived at the NASCAR R&D Center on Tuesday for 48 Stakeout 2.0, I opened my truck cover and grabbed my camping chair out of the back. It smelled as if I were still seated beside the campfire.

Marty,

I watched the Nationwide race last weekend and saw you, Rusty and Brad talking about Austin Dillon and Cole Whitt. Those are two of the drivers [who] have me really excited about the Nationwide Series for the future. What do you think of them so far?

-- Nancy White, Tullahoma, Tenn.

I'm thoroughly impressed with both, Nancy. Dillon and his brother, Ty, both have obvious talent. They're talented instinctually and cerebrally. And they're fast. Likewise for Whitt. I spoke with Denny Hamlin about Dillon and Whitt at Bristol, given that he has raced against them this year. He said both have the acumen to be successful not only at the Nationwide level but in Cup, too. But one thing he said in particular stood out to me:

"They're doing exactly what you would hope that they would do, not what you necessarily thought they would do," he said.

Deep. In other words, they're performing at best-case-scenario level.

Song of the week: "Drivin' My Life Away," Eddie Rabbitt. Classic country music. The kind that filled the cab of Daddy's Ford on hazy summer days in the hayfield on Sinking Creek. The kind that made us dream there was life out there somewhere past the corn and cattle.

Marty,

What do you make of Linsanity and Tebowmania and Danicamania?

-- Hook 'em Horns, Texas

Fame is fleeting. And relative. Consider this:

I once wrote a piece on Ricky Carmichael for ESPN The Magazine in which I detailed a trip from Atlanta to the Florida coast with RC, Jimmie Johnson, Brian Vickers, and Kevin and DeLana Harvick to take in the Supercross race at Daytona International Speedway. RC had designed the track. It was a big deal.

Upon arrival at Daytona, the group stepped out of a white conversion van on the pit lane, and the Cup boys were basically invisible. Kids in baggy clothes and flat-billed hats flocked to Carmichael in droves while Johnson and Vickers chatted up security guards typically charged with giving NASCAR fans the Heisman as they stroll by. Carmichael was the biggest star in the joint -- moto competitors included. And it wasn't even close.

Fast-forward to St. Patrick's Day, roughly 1 a.m. Carmichael, now an analyst for Speed, was in Indianapolis for the Supercross event, and he and a buddy were walking back to the Conrad Hotel from dinner when they happened upon what appeared to be a team bus of some sort.

As they approached, they realized it was indeed a team bus, specifically that of the New York Knicks, who were in town to play the Pacers. Some super fans were there, requesting autographs. Just then, Carmichael's buddy suggested he get a photograph with Jeremy Lin. Carmichael asked and Lin declined, saying he couldn't do pictures. Surprised (but not), Carmichael carried on to the elevator, where he happened upon Carmelo Anthony. "I didn't want to be that guy, so I didn't ask or make reference that it was him," Carmichael said.

He did, though, say hello. Melo asked what floor, and up they went.

"The door opened at my floor, and I told him to have a good night, and he said, 'Cool, you, too,' and that was that. I wouldn't dare ask him for anything after my recent experience with Lin. And with it being so late, you could tell those guys were fried and ready to get to their room. I hate being that guy anyway, even though it would have been cool to get pictures from both of them. I really try to respect their privacy."

Then he said something very poignant to me.

"Even though I could ride a dirt bike well, and did X Games and have driven some NASCAR, and have been somewhat visible in motorsports, it just goes to show you that I ain't even a fly on a cow's ass in their world."

That is a far cry from what I witnessed that evening in Daytona.

See? Fleeting.

Thanks for hanging out, Team. Thank you for being NASCAR fans.

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