Commentary

Story time and The Six

Updated: April 13, 2012, 5:03 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

It was Friday morning at Martinsville Speedway, typically frenetic, and I'd only just arrived at my position in the track's media room when Barney Hall walked in. Mr. Hall, of course, is the "Voice of NASCAR."

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Granted, the company for which he serves as broadcast anchor, Motor Racing Network, boasts that very slogan: "The Voice of NASCAR." But the placard rests on Mr. Hall's desk.

His is a voice of assurance. When I hear it I know it's time to fly. It accompanies a certain nervous excitement, because for me it signals the culmination of an entire week's buildup. It is a reset-button of sorts. All the storylines take a backseat to why we're here: racing.

Mr. Hall's folksy, poised cadence and country quips make me happy -- every bit as happy right now as they made me before I entered the industry fray, before time and context clouded some of the sport's luster. I love NASCAR racing as much anybody ever has, but the fact is some aspects just aren't the spectacle they were 15 years ago.

The national anthem is. The flyover is. The command is. And Mr. Hall is.

[+] EnlargeBarney Hall
ISC Images & Archives via Getty ImagesBarney Hall can weave a fine story, on and off the air.

He's been in the sport since the sport's been around.

And … oh, boy … the stories in his arsenal …

As I pounded away at my keyboard that Friday at Martinsville, Mr. Hall eased up to chat with Ryan McGee and me. I'm not typically apt to stop working and start chatting at the racetrack. Things to do. People to see. That whole mess. It sounds ridiculous, but rarely is there time to engage in meaningful conversation in the garage. Maybe it's that way in every workplace. I don't know.

But this was different. Mr. Hall had been away from the track all year, and it was fantastic to see him back. He updated us on his health and eased seamlessly into a wily tale about Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly raisin' hell all night and wheelin' steel all day. Whiskey-bent and devoid of power-steering, those gents manhandled those Detroit tanks around the paperclip for 500 laps.

McGee and I love that stuff. We hung on every word.

That moment was a lesson for me, a reminder to slow down a bit and engage in folks' lives more often. You never know what you'll learn, but you will certainly learn.

Mr. Hall's wisdom was far richer than the email I was firing off to the news desk. And it took all of five minutes.

Not surprisingly, those five minutes are the weekend's most memorable.

Hey Marty,
What era or decade of NASCAR would u most like to cover if not the present? Also, what would you do with the $600m lotto?
-- Seth Miller, Baltimore

Speaking of Mr. Hall … I'd love to go back and cover the old days, Seth. Some of my fondest memories in this career are the epic hangs I shared with Jim Hunter, hearing smoky tales from the pre-motorhome days about fast cars and faster drivers running roughshod through the hotel circuit.

Hunter always used to tell me I was a throwback; that I belonged in that bygone era. To hear him tell it, those ole boys had the world by the tail. That grin on his face and that chuckle in his voice were a photograph of authenticity. I miss him terribly.

As for the lottery money, I'd pay for my kids' colleges first. I'd give a boatload to the church and to pediatric philanthropy. And I'd buy Lainie a fully-restored mid-'80s Jeep Wagoneer, the kind with the bench seats and the wood paneling on the sides. She loves that car.

Marty,
Please tell me this is Junior's week. What the hell do we have to do for him to win?!
-- Kristie Kirk, Metairie, La.

Summon Jobu, Kristie. Bust out the voodoo. Then again, that didn't work out so well for your New Orleans Saints, I guess …

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
Andrew Weber/US PresswireJunior Nation wants to know if this is the week. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is certainly sounding confident.

More than ever it is genuinely THE burning question in NASCAR racing: Is this the week?

Of course, entering Texas, Earnhardt's winless streak stands at nearly four full seasons. It has been dissected, criticized and analyzed ad nauseam. But during his tenure at Hendrick Motorsports, the groundswell of expectation has never been higher.

Why? Because he's relevant and supremely confident on the racetrack, a contender most every weekend. Three top-5s in the season's first six weeks have that impact. His critics say it won't last and he won't win. One guy even tweets me every Sunday night with the new winless-streak tally. Popularity is polarizing.

And Saturday night, as the series steers to the site of Earnhardt's very first Cup win, his expectations are quite lofty, too.

"I expect to go out there and run in the top five, lead laps and try to win that race," Earnhardt said. "I would be disappointed if we don't do that. Finishing in the top 10 is OK, but it's not what we're after."

It's been a while since we heard him talk like that, no?

Marty,
Your column last week about Chance and Brian (Harman) brought my whole family to tears. I read it to them out loud. Thank you so much for sharing his story and the impact NASCAR has had on them. And for reminding us of our blessings.
-- Samantha Davis, Ithaca, N.Y.

Thank you to you and your family for reading, Samantha. I appreciate your time. I meant every word. Get this: Chance's story has another twist, this one involving Monster Jam and its resident superstar, Dennis Anderson's Grave Digger.

In February 2007, Chance was sick and scheduled for radiation at Duke Children's Hospital. But when the Harmans won MVP tickets to the Monster Jam show in Roanoke, Va., they chose to drive up to the Thursday evening meet-and-greet anyway, despite Chance's appointment the following morning in North Carolina.

They met with Grave Digger driver Randy Brown and Pastrana 199 driver Courtney Jolly, and took photographs in both trucks. Afterward they drove back to Duke for Chance's radiation appointment, then turned right around and drove back to Roanoke for the Monster Jam show.

Dedicated, man.

During prerace, Jolly noted that meeting Chance had greatly inspired her. Brown, meanwhile, won the Freestyle competition and dedicated the victory to Chance and gave him an autographed stuffed Digger.

The Harmans, naturally, broke down in tears. That's not all.

Fast forward five years to this February. During a business trip to Orlando, Brian realized Monster Jam was at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and bought tickets for his family. He contacted Jolly to determine whether there might be an opportunity for the Harmans to meet Anderson and explain to him how much Chance enjoyed watching him perform -- and show him the bench that rests at Chance's gravesite.

On one side on the marble bench is an etching of Jeff Gordon beating Tony Stewart to the finish line. On the other? Grave Digger. Come to find out, Anderson had family in Virginia and already knew about the stone.

Brian arrived in Tampa to 70,000 tailgaters. He was shocked Monster Jam drew that type of crowd. He bought pit party tickets for the sole purpose of meeting Anderson. When the family made it to the Grave Digger line, it was 150 yards long. The party ended at 5 p.m. It was a dicey prospect.

After two hours and 100 yards of shuffling, officials cut off the meet-and-greet line. But Brian wasn't budging until they specifically turned him away. Ultimately they got in, and when they approached Anderson and introduced themselves he knew immediately who they were.

As they departed with autographs, pictures and the solace of verbalizing to Anderson what he meant to Chance, Brian turned around and handed him a hope bracelet, by which to remember Chance. Anderson placed it on his wrist.

Racing was up first. Anderson won.

In victory he mentioned meeting the Harmans. He mentioned Chance's stone and that Chance was his biggest fan. All in front of a sold-out crowd of 70,000.

"He mentioned his good luck charm, the bracelet, and that the run was for Chance," Brian said. "The Tampa trip meant a lot to us as a family, to know how much Dennis meant to us and to understand how much Chance meant to him. What a great man to acknowledge him like he did. This was a very special time in my life."

Here is a YouTube link to that moment. It is fantastic. And amazing.

Song Of The Week

"Over You," by Miranda Lambert. "House That Built Me" was an iconic hit. It defines Lambert's career and catapulted her into mainstream stardom as an artist. But she didn't write it. I appreciate Lambert's writing ability. She'll stomp a hole through your soul. I read about music often, and notice that some critics consider "Over You" to be poorly written, shallow with weak lyrics. I disagree. Granted, I've lost a lot. To me, the piece as a whole carries tremendous impact, especially when the consumer has full context. She wrote "Over You" with her husband, Blake Shelton, about his deceased brother. When you listen to that song, within that context and her obviously personal vocal, it'll speak to you. Especially if you've experienced that type of loss.

Marty,
You're big on music … what song would be playing in the background during the last 10 laps of the championship race in Homestead?
-- Brian Kite, Lombard, Ill.

"I Won't Back Down," by Tom Petty.

Hey baby … there ain't no easy way out …
Hey I … Won't. Back. Down.
Hey baby … there ain't no easy way out …
Hey I … Will. Stand. My. Ground.

Tell me you can't see Smoke barreling off Turn 4 with that blaring behind him.

Marty,
What is your favorite thing to do when you go to Texas Motor Speedway? And who is your pick to win or turn their luck around this weekend?
-- Nathan Goben, Frankfort, Ky.

That's a tie: I love spending Saturdays at my buddy's ranch up in Pilot Point sippin' cold beer, watching the grass grow and the horses run, and listening to King George on the iPod. It's 45 minutes north of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. It may as well be 45 hours. It's quiet. And slow. And awesome. Did I mention it's quiet? (Can you tell I'm a daddy?)

My pick to win and my pick to turn his luck around this weekend are one and the same: Kasey Kahne. He's my pick to dress up like Woody from "Toy Story" and start blasting off caps like Barney Fife in Victory Lane.

That's my time. Thanks for hanging out, Team, and for being NASCAR fans.

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