Commentary

Young Donovan's birthday party offers much to celebrate

What does any 5-year-old boy want for his birthday? Donovan Burns didn't want toys. Instead, he asked his friends to bring donation checks made out to the Dale Jr. Foundation, writes Marty Smith.

Updated: July 16, 2008, 12:57 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

NASCAR InviteTamara BurnsBirthday boy Donovan Burns collected $195 from his friends for the Dale Jr. Foundation.

For many little boys it's an impossible choice, every bit as difficult as ice cream vs. candy or Lightning McQueen vs. Thomas the Tank Engine:

Tony Hawk or Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

Donovan Burns, a spry 5-year-old from Marietta, Ga., was quite interested in both, and gave both ample considerations.

"He was interested in the Tony Hawk one, too," said Donovan's mother, Tamara. "It was close between the two of them, but he chose Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the end."

The decision wasn't in reference to a new video game or T-shirt.

Not a new skateboard or diecast car.

Instead, it would decide the benefactor of a youngster's rare generosity.

Tamara, you see, considered the concept of a young child receiving a roomful of toys and other birthday gifts "completely ridiculous," especially for a family as blessed as hers was.

Donovan Burns
Tamara BurnsPatrick Burns on son Donovan (above): "He's a pretty cool kid."

She didn't mind hosting large parties for her children -- Donovan and his 8-year-old sister, Anna -- but she wasn't about to accept a gift from each guest. Her children had plenty.

So in April, as Donovan's birthday approached, Tamara and her husband, Patrick, sat their children down for a discussion: What would you guys think about using your good fortune to help others? No birthday gifts, rather donations from your buddies to your charity of choice?

Neither wavered.

"He was fine with it, actually," Patrick said. "We explained to him, 'Look, Mom and Dad are still going to get you a birthday present, Grandma and Grandpa are still going to get you a present, but we think instead of asking your friends to get you presents we'll try to do something nice for somebody else.'"

Many kids are upset when they don't get what they want, much less if they don't get anything at all.

"He thought it was fine," Patrick said. "He's a pretty cool kid."

So Tamara got to work locating charities to which Donovan might want to donate. Among the foundations she chose were the Tony Hawk Foundation, The Dale Jr. Foundation, the Humane Society and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

The Burnses, though, are a NASCAR family. Patrick, an AT&T executive, is a Jeff Burton fan. Tamara and Anna adore Jeff Gordon. And Donovan was instantly drawn to Earnhardt.

"He's just enthralled by him. He's taken by him," Patrick said. "Every time we talk about NASCAR that's all he wants to talk about -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. He was really excited when my wife and I went to Vegas last year and got him a hat that has his new number on it.

"He was so proud. He'd walk around the house pointing at it, saying, 'Dale. Earnhardt. Junior!' It's kind of funny."

On May 1, Tamara mailed an envelope to Mooresville, N.C. Enclosed were several checks totaling $195 and the birthday party invitation that explained who they were from, and what they were for.

"It was such a surprise, and an incredible gesture," said April Brogan, who heads up the Dale Jr. Foundation. "This shows the magnitude of Dale Jr.'s fans, no matter the age. The Dale Jr. Foundation supports underprivileged youth, and it's encouraging when a 5-year-old would forego presents in order to help us achieve our mission."

"They were blown away about how great it was," Tamara said. "It had made her day. And we relayed that to Donovan to make sure he knew how important it was and how special it was, what he did.

"We probably didn't tell him how rare it was. We just tried to impart to him how much it might mean to other kids who don't have as much as he has. So that's the way we took it, that there are children out there who have a lot less than you, and it's more important that they have this than that we have this."

Donovan is a beacon, proof that true, unpretentious generosity, the selfless kind, driven not by recognition but by the genuine want to assist those less fortunate, is not extinct.

On to your questions ...

The Six was dormant this week. Well, sort of. Practically every question centered on the Silly Season.

Door-To-Door
with Marty Smith
Do you have a question for ESPN NASCAR analyst Marty Smith? Go to Smith's SportsNation page to submit your question or comment for Marty, and check back regularly for the column in which he will provide the answers.
Ask Marty

Marty,

Wow! Just read where Chip Ganassi shut down the No. 40 team! I'm a huge open-wheel fan and followed Dario Franchitti to NASCAR. I was just starting to get into it. Does this mean he'll go back to IndyCar? Everything I read on the Internet says his future is up in the air.

-- Charles Johnstone, Brussels

Brussels? As in Belgium? Charles would have made The Six if he'd asked me why I'm an idiot. (It happens. Often.) Belgium! That's a trip to me -- it's easy to forget the scope of the Internet. (He probably lives in New Hampshire or something.)

Anyway, Franchitti's future is cloudy. The team banked on being able to sell the gregarious driver to sponsors, both stateside and internationally. He was, after all, fresh off the IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 championships, and is the nicest damn guy you'll ever meet.

It never materialized, and Chip Ganassi was losing millions as the No. 40 team spiraled further and further downward in owner points. The team had no choice, but to scale back. The whole suffered because one variable was struggling so badly.

The ultimate indicator that the team was doomed came at Sonoma, Calif., when Franchitti and the No. 40 failed to make the show on a track many thought would be among his best all season.

The team says Franchitti will likely run the Nationwide Series car for the remainder of the season, and continue to hone his stock car skills. It's a very difficult transition.

Look, I said from the outset of the open-wheel movement that Juan Pablo Montoya gave a lot of people false hope. Yes, Franchitti was slated to join Ganassi before Montoya was. I understand that. But Montoya's performance in the No. 42 is nothing short of amazing.

Many sports fans give NASCAR a bunch of lip for being primitive, technically deficient competition. Ask Montoya his thoughts. No, it's not F1. Of course not. But to presume it's a simpler form of competition just because the steering wheel doesn't cost 50 grand is ridiculous.

The transition from a car with half the weight and twice the downforce to one that handles like a Sherman tank, takes time. Substantial time.

Unless you're Juan Pablo Montoya or Tony Stewart.

Marty,

I can't believe Greg Biffle stayed at Roush Fenway when he could have gone to Joe Gibbs Racing. I know you interviewed Greg on TV this weekend, so you had to speak to him. Please help me understand why he made this choice!

- - Connor Welsh, Vancouver, Wash.

Biffle thought hard about the No. 20, Connor, but there came a point when he had to make a decision. For a year teams sprayed offers at him, but he never even got to the bargaining table with Gibbs or any other organization outside of Roush.

He took the Dale Jr. approach -- exhaust all options at home before start looking elsewhere. But unlike Junior, the home team stepped up.

Biffle has been at Roush for a decade and won races at every level. He's a champion in Trucks and Nationwide, and has competed for championships in Cup. The performance of the No. 16 improved dramatically over the past year after the organization recommitted itself. Ford stepped up its financial and technical support. (It had to. Roush Fenway is Ford Racing.)

In 2006 Roush scoffed at the notion that NASCAR would implement the Car of Tomorrow full time. They got spanked in '07 as a result.

Now they're back, elite again, and Biffle is up front every weekend. Some folks felt like Biffle's pit crew let him down too often. And yes, they've had their issues and Biffle has called them out publicly for it, but he made it clear those mistakes are reciprocal. He screws up, too.

Example: Sonoma. His team and crew put him in perfect position strategy-wise to win, and he drove off the course.

Biffle, to me, is among the most underrated drivers in NASCAR. He can flat wheel it. But he's 37 years old, comfortable and confident at Roush Fenway. The decision wasn't that difficult.

Let's discuss something other than Silly Season for three minutes ...

Marty,

Kurt Busch is back, baby! What's this win mean for the Blue Deuce? It's been a bad year and Busch fans are tired of seeing him struggle. Do you think this could be what he needs to get back to competing again?

-- Cary Roosevelt, Ocean City, Md.

Hmm. Before mid-May I'd have said no way, Cary. But seeing what the All-Star Race victory did for Kasey Kahne, I'm not sure Sunday's triumph won't jump-start the No. 2. Not in a million years would I have thought stumbling into a win would invigorate a team the way it has the No. 9 bunch. It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen.

Fact is Busch's team wouldn't have won that race on Sunday had he and Pat Tryson not decided to play radar roulette and stay out and wait for the deluge. They haven't run well this season, and weren't running well at New Hampshire. They just played the game right.

It's hard to believe Busch will enjoy a similar dynamic to Kahne's. But you never know. Kahne couldn't hit his rear end with a 2-by-4 in April. His team wasn't running well when they won. They weren't even supposed to be in the race.

But a gutsy pit call handed them the trophy, and suddenly they're a contender every weekend. Maybe Busch will be, too.

Hey Martdawg,

Why is it when people talk about potential teams for Casey Mears to head to, they don't mention Penske as a front-runner? I would think given his uncle's employment (even though it is on the IndyCar side) it would make it an appealing matchup from both sides. Hell, if they ever adjust the time of the Indy 500 to make the double doable again, he'd not have to look far to find a ride.

And maybe I'm missing something here, but I'd think driving for a team with points (like the 12) would be a lot more appealing than driving a car with limited points (Childress' new 33).

What say you?

--AC, New England

Makes perfect sense on paper, AC, and it'd make for some cool karma. But it's rarely that simple. There are many unforeseen variables involved on both sides of these decisions. First, and most obvious, who says Penske wants Mears? He might seek to promote David Stremme -- currently a Penske test driver -- from within. Or maybe he'll chase after Martin Truex Jr. again, though it'll cost him mightily to secure Truex's services. (Not that he doesn't have the loot, of course.)

And then there is Mears' side. He has to look at Penske's performance in recent years as opposed to Childress'. Right now they're behind. And the Alltel sponsorship is up in the air. Penske says he'll run the No. 12 with or without a sponsor, but it's never comfortable driving a white car. Childress' No. 33 is fully-sponsored for three years with General Mills.

But you're right on the points thing. The No. 12 is easily in the top 35 and the brand-new No. 33 isn't. That changes the entire complexion of a driver's mentality.

Mears' representation says three or four teams are interested in his services. Folks in the garage know his performance at Hendrick isn't entirely his fault. He's been bounced around his entire Cup career, from the No. 41 to the No. 42 to the No. 25 to the No. 5, with different crew chiefs each time. And only one of those decisions was his.

He won't be unemployed long.

That's my time this week. Have a wonderful holiday, and take a moment to reflect on its meaning. As you read this, thousands of young men and women are dodging bullets for you. Don't ever forget that. God bless them all.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.