Whom would the stars wait to see?
NASHVILLE -- A couple of good ol' boys, stitched head-to-heel in green and white Amp Energy garb, are guarding an exit at Nashville Municipal Auditorium. Their eyes, though weary from 13 hours on the job, remain trained on the target for one last glimpse.
The target, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is several feet away signing autographs amid a frenzy of admirers as he exits the main stage at Sprint Sound and Speed. Despite all the excitement, the boys at the exit can't help but yawn a bit.
They hit the bull's-eye earlier in the afternoon, scoring a quick Sharpie scribble and a handshake photograph with their man. Now they're hitting the wall.
They arrived here at 4 a.m. just to see Junior.
It is now 5 p.m. And it was worth every second to them.
They weren't alone. Despite single-digit temperatures outside, thousands of folks showed up from all over creation to meet their favorite drivers and country music stars.
One couple came from England. Another young lady flew in from Long Beach, Calif., and yet another came from Chicago and got in line at 6:30 a.m. for the opportunity to meet Tony Stewart.
Seems crazy, but everyone has someone they'd wait that long to meet, right? Makes you wonder: Whom would those drivers and country music stars spend a day waiting to meet?
While they're sitting onstage in front of a couple thousand admirers, the question is posed.
Seated at the far end, stage right, Earnhardt is up first, much to his chagrin.
"Oh, damn I thought I'd have time to think about it. Probably a band."
Country star Josh Turner, seated immediately to Junior's right, leans over and says something to him.
"You? Oh yeah, I'd do it for you," Junior says, laughing with Turner. "I'd probably go see a concert before standing in line. I like concerts. I like raising hell. And I've met everybody. I've been fortunate to meet a lot of people."
The decision is made to come back to Junior later.
Turner then mentions Jerry Clower, the beloved country comedian whom he considers the greatest ever. As soon as Turner's mouth opens, the crowd cheers. Mostly the ladies. That dude's voice is lower than the temperature outside.
Next up is Denny Hamlin. He wastes no time.
"Julianne Hough," he says with a grin. "If anybody here can work that out, I'd appreciate it."
The crowd howls.
Hamlin later tells me he missed his chance just days prior. He was in Los Angeles for the BCS National Championship Game and saw a tweet from "Dancing With The Stars" star Hough that she was at a bar on Sunset Boulevard set to ride a mechanical bull. He was at a nearby hotel but wasn't feeling well enough to make a run at it.
He remains bitter.
Marty Roe, the lead singer for Diamond Rio, estimates that he and his band have the record for most national anthems performed at NASCAR races, with 14.
"Mine's Merle Haggard," Roe says without hesitation. "The last time I paid my own money to see somebody, it was right here [at Nashville Auditorium], and it was Haggard."
After Roe is Kyle Busch, who offers keen insight into just how far, and how fast, he's come.
"Just about six years ago I was standing in line for a famous person's autograph and he's actually sitting in this line -- Tony Stewart," Busch said. "I'd already gotten Jeff Gordon's."
Busch tells me he waited for Stewart at the SEMA show in Las Vegas and had two die-cast cars signed.
Bucky Covington, of "American Idol" fame, first gives deference to Hamlin's answer.
"I've met [Hough], and I'd like to meet her again," he says, chuckling. "Seriously, it'd probably be Jeff Healey."
Healey's band was prominent in the Patrick Swayze movie "Roadhouse." (See: "Angel Eyes," which Covington started singing to help folks remember who Healey is. There were many ohhhh yeahhhh nods throughout the crowd as he hummed.)
Kasey Kahne, a huge country music fan, chooses Johnny Cash and George Strait. Later in the evening, at a charity dinner benefiting Victory Junction Gang Camp, he backs it up by bidding some $9,000 on a portrait of Cash painted right there onstage, right before the crowd. (That $9,000 bid also included a Willie Nelson portrait, but Kahne gave that back to the house so it could be bid on again, resulting in around $5,000 more to Victory Junction.)
Kahne is on a roll on this day. Asked the best part about being a race car driver, he quips, "The chicks."
Stewart is last. He mentions that he, too, wouldn't mind meeting Hough, though he didn't "really want to stand and meet her. I'm not married. I can say that."
The crowd hunches over.
"'Smokey and the Bandit' is one of the best movies ever, so I'd say Burt Reynolds," Stewart says.
To close, it's back to Junior.
"Oh damn I've always been a big Dwight Yoakam fan, so I'll go with him," Junior says.
Junior tells me he met Yoakam at Talladega a while back and wouldn't mind seeing a concert of his. They've spoken on the phone and admire each other's accomplishments.
And his favorite song?
"Ain't That Lonely Yet."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
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