Commentary

Magic in the night and The Six

Updated: June 15, 2012, 6:25 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

The world moves quickly these days. It does not roll by, but rather speeds through our daily concourse with the cold rage of a getaway car. Our lives, however blessed, are at times like snowflakes -- frozen but delicate, and each completely unique. Life will stop to say hello, but we must be willing to stop, too, and engage in the conversation.

The relationship between life and its lives can be fruitful and fulfilling, but is at times impersonal; at other times wholly anonymous.

We are constantly Wi-Fi'd -- and thereby often tongue-tied. We do not sit and chat. No time. And even when we do sit to chat, we bury our faces in mobile device mumbo-jumbo. We engage our fingers and our eyes and disengage our ears. We hear snippets of conversations but don't listen so closely.

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That dynamic means we are far more connected with the masses -- and far less connected with our loved ones.

My judge's gavel slams the desk. Guilty. I'm a front-row qualifier in the iPhone 500.

But the general trend troubles me lately. As I get older, I get more reminiscent. I care more these days about what got me here. History is contextually more tangible to me, not just words in a textbook at 2:30 in the afternoon for a wandering mind focused on girls and sports -- in that order.

I also care about what I leave here. I care about what my children remember of me and I care how I impact other folks' lives. Too much at times. I invest emotionally in my readers. That's as healthy as it is unhealthy. It's healthy to know where you stand, good and bad. It's unhealthy to care so much it impacts your mood.

I recently had a reader to whom I've never spoken and never met suggest that I was fake; that what I say as a man-of-the-people and what I do as a man-of-the-people are different things. It gave me pause. I pondered for a bit about whether she was right. It made me look in the mirror and decide whether I truly live the Golden Rule.

I feel I do. To the very best of my ability, anyway.

I care about my kids' experiences. Not just the planned ones, birthdays and whatnot. But the simple, spontaneous ones, too, like a bike ride down a nowhere sidewalk and a front porch thunderstorm, or ice cream on a whim or teaching my daughter to swing a baseball bat in the backyard. I want them to know more of warm summer nights of their youth than Wii Bowling and the Bubble Guppies.

I want them to run and play and laugh until dusk. Dusk is special as a kid. Dusk is a new world, uncharted territory for a child's innocent soul. Dusk is out-past-dark. It is lightning bugs and bottle rockets and the panorama of a trillion stars and hangin' with the older kids.

[+] EnlargeWalkers Dusk
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesKids of all ages know there's magic afoot as the sun sets.

It is magic.

When I think back to my summers, that's one stark memory I carry: how cool it was to be out past dark.

I was reminded of this earlier this week.

Cambron wants to ride his bike, all day, every day. So Lainie and I grab camping chairs and hang in the neighborhood as he rides and rides and rides hither and yon. The neighbors filter out family-by-family. The kids join Cambron and the parents join Lainie and me, and eventually we have a full-blown cul-de-sac hillbilly extravaganza.

That was the scene this week, and the parents were having so much fun we let the kids play well past bedtime. As I sat there, laughter in the air and the pitter-patter of carefree feet on the pavement, I couldn't help but grin.

It seems trivial, but I feared my children may never experience this.

I feared between the carpool parade and the mobile apps and the fenced-in yards, we'd gotten too desensitized to the beauty in simplicity.

We haven't. That realization does my heart good.

Marty,
Junior is so close!!! That win is coming soon! What did you think of his postrace comments at Pocono, that he wasn't ready to gamble? Shouldn't he gamble?!
-- Carey Carlson, Big Stone Gap, Va.

No. He shouldn't gamble when he's five laps short. Five laps at Pocono equates to more than 12 miles. No one expected the final caution period to last so many laps, and it's very difficult to save 12-plus miles of fuel regardless. It requires the driver to ease off the throttle very early entering the corner, and easing back into the throttle very easily off the corner.

Some fans emailed me this week hollering that the decision to pit was "gutless." I completely disagree. It takes far more (guts) to pit, preserve a quality finish and shovel coal on the momentum furnace than it does to stay out and run out knowing that no one -- NO ONE -- would blame you for trying in the face of NASCAR's most-scrutinized victory drought ever.

This is a team focused on contending for a championship. That elusive victory is imminent. It will come soon. And had the team gambled and failed, it would have compromised momentum. Some don't believe in momentum. I'm a huge believer in it.

We take criticism from fans for so readily saying that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win any week now, and on paper the criticism is just. Fact is, he hasn't won in four years in the consummate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport. But contextually, based on performance, it truly seems that win could come at any time.

If he didn't have the best car at Pocono it was close. He had a race-winning car. He wasn't up front because of strategy; rather it was strategy that foiled victory.

What he said after the race told me a lot about his confidence level. He knows that victory is coming. He knows that forcing it does no one any good. He also knows that running a car out of fuel has a negative residual impact on everyone.

"I ran out of gas here one year and that pisses me off so bad that it's just hard to recover from it, mentally, in the next couple of weeks," Earnhardt said. "There's just no excuse in running out of gas."

He believes in himself and in his team. And for Earnhardt, that is critical to performance.

SONG OF THE WEEK

"Life Off My Years," Lee Brice

Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Michael Heeney wrote this song. The first time I heard it I was sitting in Eric's living room in Nashville, and he put the demo in the CD player and told me to sit down and listen. Three notes in, the hair on the back of my neck stood up.

I made him play that demo 15 times that night. Lainie finally told me to shut up about it and leave it alone. I just sat there and closed my eyes and absorbed the story and the sound. There's a relentless drum cadence accented by an equally relentless guitar. The song promotes living life with vulnerability and no handcuffs. You're only here a minute, so max out that minute, it says.

Very few songs have ever impacted me like this one does.

Hearing that song that night, and feeling that passion and corralling that emotion it triggered will always be a very special moment for me. It will never lose potency in my mind. "Life Off My Years" is a special song. It owns me like few songs ever have or will. It is beautiful.

"Life's never dealt me any aces, but I'm all in double-down no fear …
I'll take years off my life, before I take life off of my years …"
"Ain't a fan of going slow around corners, stomp on the gas and grab another gear …
Yeah' I'll take years off my life before I'll take life off my years …"
"What's the use of life if you don't live it? You sip your water I'll drink my beer?
Yeah, I'll take years off my life before I'll take life off of my years …"

Brice should step into the box and swing like Matt Stairs with this one. It'll be the biggest song of his career.

Marty,
Attendance at Dover was horrible, and on TV it looks like it's down almost everywhere. What gives?
-- Craig Wilson, Paris, Tenn.

A buddy of mine suggested something very intriguing the other night at dinner: Pull in the bulldozers and rip some grandstands down. Take these 120,000-seat monstrosities and make them 60,000 seats, and in turn put a premium on tickets to the live event. Make tickets tough to come by.

Make demand skyrocket and supply plummet. Make it matter to be there again. There's no shame in doing this. But is it plausible, really? I called Talladega Superspeedway president Grant Lynch to discuss it.

Lynch tells me Talladega has indirectly already started that process, by replacing thinner seats with wider ones during an ongoing refurbishment process. Doing so, he said, reduces capacity while improving the at-track experience for the customer, i.e., more room. But he doesn't want to get carried away with seat reduction.

"Do I want to get down to having an immediate supply and demand equation, where demand is right where supply is? I'm not willing to go that low right now, because the sport has various factors that have impacted ticket sales," Lynch said.

"I don't need nearly what I used to need in terms of seats, but I want flexibility to return to a larger number without having to put seats back up. We're weathering the storm."

So why, then, is attendance down? Lynch figures it is a confluence of factors, including the new car, the perception of which, he said "took a while to win fans over and for them to understand it." He also noted fuel prices -- most of Talladega's regulars come from more than 300 miles away, he said -- and the cumulative amount of time NASCAR fans devote to the sport compared to fans of other sports, meaning four days vs. four-hours.

And then there's Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson.

"Earnhardts have always been huge for us at Talladega," Lynch said. "Junior is running great right now. The whole sport wants him to win. We do, too. Badly. And Jimmie Johnson's dominance, while it may be the most amazing thing we'll ever see in motorsports, it [gave the perception] of other folks not being competitive. Having a new winner helps a lot."

So all of this, then, begs the question: What is the sweet-spot capacity number for a NASCAR Sprint Cup racetrack?

"It varies from market to market," Lynch said. "There's some states in better shape financially than others -- Texas' economy is much better than the southeast right now, where we're located. I'm thinking, for bigger tracks that have 130,000 or more right now, the sweet spot is somewhere in the teens right now. And even if I'm not selling that many now, I'm willing to carry those numbers moving forward."

Marty,
I'm curious: do you think it would be fair if a driver won the Chase without winning a race? Is it possible -- Carl Edwards won once last season and led for a long time -- but with Dale Jr. being second in points, do you think he could go all the way without a win?
-- Genevieve Cadorette, Lake Norman, N.C.

It would absolutely be fair for a driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship without a win, Genevieve. Granted, it'd be terribly anticlimactic. But it'd be fair. And it could happen.

It's the platform NASCAR provides the competitors. NASCAR has tried six-ways-to-Sunday to make winning matter more. And the 2011 Chase lends credence to its importance -- Edwards' 4.9 average-finish during the Chase is the best ever, but he failed to win a single Chase race and lost out to Tony Stewart's five wins in a 10-race run. How often will one driver win half the Chase? Maybe never again. How often will a driver piece together a solid, consistent Chase? The odds are far more plausible. Consistency is still the most important variable in the quest to win a title.

Marty,
Will any other tracks follow suit with shortening race lengths? Worked very well for Pocono, IMO.
-- Paul St. Onge, New Hampshire

It worked wonders for Pocono, Paul, and other tracks should certainly consider it. More often than not, shorter races make for better races.

[+] EnlargeKyle Busch
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesPocono Raceway president Brandon Igdalsky liked what he saw at his track last Sunday.

But remember: Pocono is still a privately owned, family-held business. There is no International Speedway Corp. or Speedway Motorsports Inc. bottom line to meet.

I spoke with Pocono president Brandon Igdalsky this week to gauge his reaction to what he experienced last Sunday. As you might imagine, he was thrilled.

"You didn't see the cars gets as strung out this time as you normally do," he said. "You definitely saw more battles throughout the field. I stood on the backstretch for 30 laps or so, at the crossover, and I was shocked at how great the battles were through the tunnel and down the backstretch into Turn 3. I was just shocked."

This is a guy that has gone to races at Pocono his entire life.

While standing there, Igdalsky turned to a buddy of his and chatted. I repeat: He chatted.

"We started laughing!" Igdalsky said. "We could to actually talk to each other for a while. That told me the cars are bunched up more, they're battling more. That's what we've needed here. As a fan, it was a damn good race. I'm excited."

The decision to shorten Pocono races was a mutual one among the track staff, NASCAR, the sport's television partners and fan input. Last year, Igdalsky said, the track went to NASCAR and said, if you're ready, we're ready. There was never apprehension about the decision. Losing 100 miles meant losing hot dog money and beer money. But that's not the core business, and someone finally admitted it.

"It was more about the show, and the quality of racing than, 'Will we have an extra hour to sell hot dogs and beer?' It was all about the experience -- that's a huge focus for us, to enhance the fan experience. If it means one or two less beers, so be it. It's about the racing on the track. The fan feedback so far has been great. It definitely quieted some of the critics that say you have to keep the 500. It was the right decision."

It was absolutely the right decision. And long overdue, no less.

That's my time this week, Team. Thank you for yours. And thank you for being in TheSix.

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