Commentary

Bringing hope and The Six

Updated: April 6, 2012, 1:47 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

While in Martinsville, I was interviewed by a newspaper columnist from Richmond, Va., a conversation I thoroughly enjoyed. As we chatted, the impact of the NASCAR road circus on my family and me was broached. The topic struck me.

There is the stock answer. And there is the truth. Hear me out.

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Undoubtedly, folks in the Airport 500 are worn out. That goes for every profession that requires extensive business travel. Example: The 12-hour Fontana workday straight into the 10-hour Ontario-to-Phoenix-to-Charlotte redeye in Week 5 would make iron man triathletes fall out. It takes a full week to recover.

So what? We tend to complain about it among ourselves, but the fact is we're blessed to do it. The guy planting corn in Omaha isn't griping. He puts his nose down and plows like his daddy plowed, and thanks God when those yellow ears fill his pocket with green paper. And when they don't, he just works harder.

(As I type this -- April 5, 2012; 6:48 a.m. -- the lady pouring my coffee at the Radford, Va., Best Western tells me she's two hours into a double shift. She'll finish up breakfast, help with house-cleaning and then man the front desk. Until 11 o'clock tonight. She tells me she has two teenage daughters to feed, one of whom is pregnant. I thank her for her resolve. She smiles widely. I sense she doesn't hear that every day.)

There are countless folks in this country who can't find work right now. So anyone who disparages the opportunity to work in NASCAR racing can pack on up and head on out. We'll see ya. We need passion. There's not enough passion in this world. Passion outlasts politics and …

Granted, it's awfully tough to have passion while idling in Kentucky gridlock for hours on end. But compare it to the nurse on her 16th hour of administering chemo, or the soldier trying to sleep in a makeshift tent in a sandbox amid mortar fire, then get back to me …

NASCAR racing is bigger than every individual or every accomplishment. It's bigger than Richard Petty's 200 wins or Dale Earnhardt's seven championships or the Jeff Gordon marketing revolution. It's bigger than Jimmie Johnson's five-year beatdown or Ryan Newman's 12-second lightning bolt in Thunder Valley. It's bigger than the Pass in the Grass or the Winston Million or 212.809 miles per hour.

Here's why:

Like all sports, NASCAR is an escape. It bonds families and it unifies communities.

And it has a knack for easing tragedy's sting.

I have a buddy back home in Virginia who greatly inspires me. His name is Brian Harman. He's a basketball coach at a tiny Group A high school 30 miles from my alma mater, and he's a fanatical Tony Stewart fan.

Harman and I were bitter rivals back in the early-'90s dark ages, both pale, skeletal point guards who relied more on heart than talent. But like most rivalries, maturity fostered respect and the inevitably embellished reminiscence of the glory days.

One day in 2007 I got a note from a mutual friend, who informed me that Harman's 4-year-old son, Chance, had been sick with cancer and recently died. I was floored. Chance was only slightly older than Cambron, and for any parent, the concept of burying your child is incomprehensible and terrifying.

Chance was diagnosed in 2006 with a rare form of medulloblastoma called atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor (ATRT). This form of malignant cancer invariably carries a bleak prognosis.

Cancer ultimately defeated Chance on July 6, 2007. But if you ask Brian, Chance was the victor. Brian is a man of deep Christian faith and has an indomitable grace and peace about the genuine heartbreak of losing his son.

That's where the inspiration lies for me. Chance was a warrior. The real kind. Not the kind we try to create in football uniforms or race cars. Chance looked cancer square in the eye and went down with a haymaker and million-dollar smile.

"My heart still hurts every day, and it will hurt forever," Brian said. "And I have made some new relationships with a lot of popular people through what we've gone through, but I would give that all up to have him back with me."

Nowhere does Harman feel closer to his son than in the grandstands at a NASCAR race.

Brian took Chance to his first race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the fall of 2006. Unbeknownst to the family, Chance was already sick. They'd planned to attend the Trucks race at Charlotte the following spring, but Chance had fallen ill and wasn't physically able.

Father and son watched every race from the hospital bed.

"Chance was a huge race fan, Jeff Gordon mostly, but he liked Tony [Stewart] as well," Brian said. "I feel very close to Chance when I am in the grandstand. I can remember the first race I went to after his passing. It was at Bristol, and they were singing 'God Bless America'; I just cried, and the fly-by was unbelievable.

"Prerace is when it touches me the most, especially at Richmond in the fall with the sunset as the national anthem is being sung and the planes fly into it. Makes me think of the day that he passed away and rode off into the sunset."

At Chance's grave site there is a bench. It is marble, and etched into its seat is a scene: Gordon's No. 24 beating Stewart's former No. 20 to the finish line.

It is symbolic.

Stewart's superhuman march to the championship this past fall reminded Harman of his son.

Harman Bench
Courtesy of Brian Harman The bench at the gravesite of Chance Harman shows a racing theme. Chance, who died when he was four, was a Jeff Gordon fan.

"Tony's success is a lot like Chance, he just competes no matter what," Brian said. "His drive and competitiveness is why he is so good. They both are so determined. Chance was so determined to beat cancer, and he did. He did not lose his fight. I will always say that. It didn't get the best of him.

"Last year, Tony, at Martinsville, was so close to going a lap down. He pushed [Denny] Hamlin to the limit, to where he almost wanted to wreck him. This went on for several laps until a caution came out. Tony stayed on the lead lap, fought back, passed Johnson on the outside to win and ended up winning the championship. If he had given in for that one lap, he would not have won the championship.

"If Chance had given in when they told us to take him home and take pictures, because it isn't going to last long, a lot of hope and determination for a lot of people would not be around today. I have only met Tony one time, just to tell him good luck. I know he has some big fans, but none any bigger than me."

That's why NASCAR racing is bigger than trophies or money.

It is hope.

I'm blessed to witness that hope firsthand. Often.

To honor Chance, Brian founded the Chance Harman Classic, an annual high school basketball tournament that has grown to include some the country's best prep teams and most sought-after college recruits. Every dime raised goes straight to Duke Children's Hospital for research about Chance's specific type of tumor.

Brian estimates the tournament raised $5,000 in its first year, 2008. In 2011 it raised $15,000. And this year he expects to raise some $50,000 between the basketball tournament and the Washington Redskins' alumni golf tournament, during which the Chance Harman Foundation is the major benefactor. Again, every dime will go to Duke, where Chance was treated.

"It is not easy for us, but if I can help a family or help a child live one more day … I'd give anything for one more day …," Brian said.

I told you the guy was a rock star.

Marty,

I've always wanted to know how long it takes drivers to remember how to drive a track when they roll off for practice the first time.

-- Clay Snider, Chandler, Ind.

I talked to Brad Keselowski about this for you, Clay, and he told me the best drivers acclimate themselves immediately. The mere mortals?

Cup: second lap on track.

Nationwide: halfway through practice.

Marty,

What is Kasey [Kahne] saying about his year? Is it ever going to get any better? I've never seen somebody have this bad of luck.

-- Chelsey Kahne, Fort Worth, Texas

Kahne is frustrated beyond description, Chelsey. He's befuddled by his pitiful luck but confident in the speed his cars make each weekend. He is buoyed by potential. I spoke with him after the Martinsville debacle, and he was very intense about his position.

[+] EnlargeKasey Kahne
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesIf Kasey Kahne didn't have bad luck this year ...

"I've been thinking about Texas all week -- I wish we were headed there today," he said. "I know every crack and every characteristic in my mind. I can see every inch. I love racing."

That's the voice of determined humility. Racing is a humbling business. It is the consummate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately platform. Despite an easygoing demeanor, Kahne is a demanding competitor, both of himself and of his team. He hates to lose and won't tolerate mediocrity, which was made evident by the fact that he replaced his cousin as his spotter.

I expect you'll find him in Victory Lane next weekend just down the street from your house, Chelsey.

Marty,
Have you EVER seen a string of bad luck as bad as the 24's has been to start this season?

-- John Null, Mississippi

You'd be hard-pressed to find one, John. Kahne, possibly.

Gordon's luck is abysmal. Statistically he's never started so poorly. But the numbers lie.

In speaking with the team, I'm told his worst car of the season was a 12th-place car at Vegas. In the season opener at Daytona, he was running near the front when he had an engine problem. At Bristol, he was in the top five all day long before cutting a tire while racing teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. At Fontana, he drove from 21st to fourth without the aid of a caution, but pit road problems dropped him to 26th before the deluge. And at Martinsville, of course, he led 328 laps and was in position to win with three laps to go.

Optimism abounds despite the frustration because, like Kahne, Gordon has speed, just nothing to show for it. He said something Friday at Martinsville that speaks to his patience.

"Right now it is just about putting the whole race together," Gordon said. "It's about having the car that we need and then making sure that the rest of the things fall, that we don't make mistakes. That is the beauty of the Chase. I like the Chase format for the Sprint Cup because we are still in it. We just have to focus on winning races right now. We can't focus on trying to be in the top 10 in points.

"If we win races we might get there. But if we win races we will be in. That is the nice thing. The downside is, for a lot of people, they think, 'Oh man, well, how are they ever going to win a race? Look where they are in points.' I don't think we are that far away from winning races. I will be honest. I think we just have to eliminate the mistakes, and we have a lot of races left to be able to pull that off."

Song Of the Week

"Wish You Were Here" by Incubus. Fantastic song about the joy of sharing special moments with folks you love and appreciate.

Marty,

What the hell was Reutimann doing? Was this really all about making sure Danica has a starting spot for her next race?

-- Andi Wernke, Location Unknown

Everyone is quick to bury David Reutimann for stopping on the racetrack Sunday at Martinsville. That moment set up the fateful green-white-checkered that triggered the melee that ultimately sent Ryan Newman to Victory Lane.

I don't buy it. I didn't buy it even before I spoke to Reutimann and team owner Tommy Baldwin on Thursday. I don't believe it to be in Reutimann's character to purposefully affect the outcome of a race like that. It's just not his style at all. He's a racer. He's not into all those shenanigans and horseplay. He respects the integrity of the sport.

Did the top-35 rule play into it? Absolutely. If the No. 10 car were solidly locked into the top 35, Reuty would have bailed to pit road earlier. But it wasn't, so you can't fault him for trying to limp that thing around and retain a guaranteed starting spot at Texas. I don't think he expected the car to just up and quit on the racetrack.

And I know it was probably the very last thing on his mind at that moment, but why would Reutimann purposefully stop and hand the guy who indirectly took his ride (Clint Bowyer) and the owner that didn't want him (Michael Waltrip) the opportunity to win a race?

Marty,

You're such a (freaking) (pansy). Why don't you have the (guts) to call Clint Bowyer a (dang) idiot? He's a (freaking) idiot!!!! He cost Jeff Gordon a win and he cost Rick Hendrick history. How many times have you EVER seen someone go into Turn 1 at Martinsville like that and make it stick?

-- Brady Sartin, Wisconsin Badger

That's a lot of parentheses, Brady.

[+] EnlargeClint Bowyer
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesClint Bowyer was doing what he should have been at Martinsville, it just didn't work out.

I don't have the (guts) to call Bowyer an idiot because I don't believe him to be an idiot.

He, of course, claims that Ryan Newman jacked him up to start the mess in the first place. But let's look at context: Bowyer was the first car on new tires and therefore was much quicker than Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon on the restart. And he saw an opportunity to win a race. It's time to go. Put on your big-boy pants and gas it up. Lollygaggers get run over.

This is a guy who is emotionally reborn. A new race team and a new crew chief and fast race cars are a revelation. Bowyer is hungry for validation. For the past two seasons at Richard Childress Racing, he felt unappreciated. He was competitive but never able to take the next step into the "elite" conversation. He yearns to do so.

And here's the biggest point on Martinsville: Bowyer is very well respected among his peers. Why? Because he generally races as clean as he does hard. Gordon said it after the race.

And if Gordon's not ticked off at Bowyer, should you be?

Marty,

Who do you see as top dog at Roush Fenway at season's end? And do you see championship No. 2 for Matt Kenseth? I hope so!

-- Teri Kidon, North Hollywood, Calif.

I do. Kenseth was my championship prediction in January, Teri, and his performance so far has done nothing but affirm that sentiment. The No. 17 bunch is consistently fast, and Kenseth has a knack for avoiding substantial point setbacks. He even left Martinsville in one piece. That's saying something for him. He hates that place.

That's my time, Team. Thank you for being NASCAR fans.

And remember why we celebrate Easter.

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