Commentary

Family trumps Junior on Father's Day

Updated: June 22, 2012, 8:44 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

My hope is to avoid enabling my professional occupation to provide my personal identity, though in this world that borders on impossible. Introductions typically include titles, it seems. Public accolades and setbacks tend to dictate the mood under our private roofs. We don't want to invest in that emotion. But most of us do.

I thought about that last weekend. I wanted terribly to be at the racetrack when Dale Earnhardt Jr. exorcised the futility that for years had haunted him, whether he wanted to admit it -- or even realized it.

I wanted to be enveloped by that raw emotion and to witness the scenery of this rarest of moments that stops a perpetual-motion industry, an industry that rolls right on down the highway with or without you. I wanted to witness the fans come completely unglued in glee.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCARNASCAR Nation stood up and cheered Dale Earnhardt Jr. to his first Cup win in four years.

And as Earnhardt screamed off Turn 4 to the checkered flag in what was a dominant victory and a resounding statement, I was sitting on my couch in North Carolina holding my month-old daughter. I was unsure how to feel. My professional ego clashed with the reality of what I knew truly matters -- my family.

I had been at the racetrack that morning and was offered the opportunity to fly home early for Father's Day. No-brainer. But when I boarded that plane at 2 p.m., I knew Earnhardt would win. Just knew. I had enjoyed a lengthy conversation with him the day before and had a feeling this would be his weekend. As a result, I had reservations about my decision to leave.

And then he did it. He won. He deserved to win and he deserved to be proud. And the sport won, too. Love Junior or hate Junior, you need look no further than his competitors' reaction for proof: Few wins are so popular.

And here I was having a pity party.

Weak. So weak.

It was the most ridiculous emotion, about which I am now embarrassed, but in the moment couldn't especially contain.

Then Masters champion Bubba Watson came upon my television.

I was watching "SportsCenter" coverage of Junior's Michigan victory when a feature piece aired that detailed the travails of Watson's adoption of son, Caleb, a process that ultimately took eight emotionally exhausting years to complete.

In the piece, written and voiced by ESPN columnist Gene Wojciechowski, it was noted that Watson, after winning the most celebrated golf tournament in the world, completed his obligations as winner and immediately returned home to his wife, Angie, and Caleb because "he wanted to hold his son more than a trophy."

Then Watson stamped that emotion with a most poignant statement: A baby needs to hear its father's voice and feel its father's embrace and know its father is right there with it.

He had tears in his eyes while he said it.

And I looked down at my daughter. And I felt very small.

I appreciated that moment very much.

I was in the right place. At the right time. For the right reason.

And I was happy.

Side note: I visited Mooresville, N.C., this week and stopped in at Pie In The Sky, one of Earnhardt's favorite pizza joints in his hometown. I expected a raucous scene where the locals were overwhelmed that their native son was back. That's not what I got at all.

In fact, the entire town seemed quite subdued about it. Pie In The Sky owner Tim Whitener said something to me that was very poignant when I noted that Junior got it done on Father's Day:

"If it were me, every single win for the rest of his life would be Father's Day," Whitener told me. "Because that's what his daddy was -- a winner. He has to miss him so badly, and you never get over losing your dad. I haven't."

Truth. I haven't either.

Marty,

I saw you went to the CMT Awards with Ricky Stenhouse. What was your favorite part of that experience?

-- Stanley Rogers, Batesville, Ark.

Impossible question, Stanley. There were many. I love Nashville, Tenn. Stenhouse and I met some fantastic folks that day, such as Jim "The Governor," who manages Tootsies. He had a mid-'80s purple Cadillac limo that was epic. It had that stand-up, snow-plow grill and the hood ornament. He called it the Purple People Seater.

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Grace Potter. She's ... something. ... I also enjoyed chatting racing and writing with Brantley Gilbert and Jason Aldean, who just completed his new record. Stenhouse and I were just a couple of country boys kickin' up dust. It was a blast.

But oddly enough, my conversation with Dario Franchitti about winning his third Indianapolis 500 probably left the most indelible mark on me.

At that point his victory was still very fresh, and he told me he hadn't had any time to appreciate the accomplishment. Then I asked him about Dan Wheldon, how close they were as friends and how much extra meaning this particular Indy 500 championship meant as opposed to the other two.

"This one's special," he said. "I mean, they're all special, but this one ... because Dan won it last year ... the whole month tribute to Dan ... it was special. I was really emotional before the start. I'm normally pretty straight, businesslike. I was really emotional.

"The fact that it was myself, [Scott] Dixon, Tony Kanaan at the end -- there was something amazing. We were pallbearers along with Dan's brother at his funeral, and I'm like, really? It just gives you goose bumps."

Yes, it does.

"We all wanted to win it, and it really didn't matter which order it was," he said. "It was just cool because I was a friend of Dan's."

Song of the week: "El Cerrito Place." Charlie Robison.

This song reentered my radar in a big way this week. Kenny Chesney cut it for his new record, "Welcome To The Fishbowl," and it prompted me to dig out Robison's cover of this Keith Gattis classic. I always love to hear the writer sing the song. And Gattis wrote a hell of a masterpiece here. But I'm partial to Robison's version. It's haunting.

Marty,

When are you gonna write a book? Anywho ... I looked at the entry list for Sonoma ... not many "ringers" on there, and Boris [Said] isn't driving for a bigger team. Are the Cup guys just getting that much better at road course driving and the teams don't need someone else to drive for them? Is it more testing and more computer simulations?

-- Thanks, John G, Madison, Ala.

Marcos Ambrose addressed perfectly why ringers haven't had notable success in the Sprint Cup Series. In short: It's awfully difficult.

"I think you would struggle to find another racing car that handles quite like these NASCAR Sprint Cup vehicles," Ambrose said. "They are a beast to drive. Most road racers are used to a car driving them around the track, pretty much. A stock car won't do that around here. You have to really handle it and drive aggressively and get the most out of it.

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"The level of talent is exceptionally high. You think that half the field can't get around the road course, but that is a fallacy. That is not right. These guys know how to get around here and are seriously good. We race against each other every week and we know who we can push around and who we can't. We know the cars really well, too. We know how to tune on them.

"What other racing car has a truck arm rear-suspension with a spring halfway inboard from the tire? What other car has steel wheels? What other race car has way too much power for the level of grip?

"It is one of the heaviest race cars you will ever drive -- 3,500 pounds is a seriously heavy car. That is what makes the sport so great. I am not surprised that road ringers can't adapt to these vehicles, because they are very unique."

There you have it, John, the best explanation I've ever heard as to why road-course ringers don't win.

As for the book ... the iron's warm ...

Marty,

People are now popping off that Junior is a championship contender. Really? Come on, you can't think that, can you?

-- Jonesy in South Carolina

He's extremely consistent, Jonesy. And confident. He absolutely belongs in the conversation at this point in the season. But as I've said many times this year, it's too early to have that conversation.

Tony Stewart rewrote the equation in 2011. He was an afterthought until September. Slow. Not especially competitive. Then the Chase happened and he was competitive, fast and lucky -- the perfect championship equation.

So, does Junior think he's a contender?

"I think it helps us a lot, as far as just for us personally to feel like we can contend and compete, that we went out there and won a race," Junior said. "I don't really know how it makes everyone else feel outside of our team, but for us I think it makes us even more hungry."

Marty,

Other than The Band and Top-40 country, what do you listen to?

-- Jackie Marcey, Athens, Ga.

Lainie and I are big into fun. right now. The "Some Nights" record is just tremendous. Their sound is so unique, almost like a Queen-meets-Rusted Root vibe. I can't stop spinning it. You runners out there should download "One Foot." It's a great training song.

That's my time this week, Team. Thank you for yours. And thanks for being NASCAR fans.

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