- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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Many evenings when I'm home, I prepare my son's dinner and then sit with him while he eats. We chat, cut up, "practice manners" and, in moments of weakness for me, play the funny-face game.
"SportsCenter" is almost always on in the background, and we make a habit of sending ridiculous tweets to my man Jay Harris about goofy remarks he makes during the show. (If you haven't seen Jay's back-and-forth with John Force, YouTube it. You will sob with laughter. "Jay. You with me, Jay? Hey, Jay? You there, Jay?" Classic.)
During one such instance this week, the funny-face game turned stoic as my son's gaze locked on the television. There was a colorful SportsNation map on the screen, the kind ESPN uses to illustrate which states voted which way in an ESPN.com poll.
This particular poll outlined the most iconic moment in sports history.
Willie Mays' impossible over-the-shoulder catch won, with 33 percent of 70,000 votes, beating Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" (24 percent), Dr. J's swooping reverse layup against the Lakers in the 1980 Finals (20 percent), Bobby Orr's "Superman" shot (13 percent) and Magic Johnson's baby hook in the paint to beat the Celtics in the 1987 Finals (11 percent).
When I saw that, I began to ponder the most iconic moment in NASCAR history.
It's a fitting conversation, after all, given all the Hall of Fame hoopla.
There are myriad choices, but a handful stand out:
• Richard Petty's 200th career victory, in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona with President Ronald Reagan in the house.
• The 1976 Daytona 500, when Petty and David Pearson wrecked each other. While Petty's ride was rendered immobile, Pearson had the presence of mind to keep his foot in the clutch and the car idling. He limped across the start/finish line at a snail's pace to earn his lone victory in The Great American Race.
• The 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta. The King's last race. Jeff Gordon's first. Awesome Bill, Davey and Kulwicki. The Underbird. The best championship battle ever.
• The 2003 Southern 500 at Darlington, when Ricky Craven body-slammed past Kurt Busch in an epic 190 mph battle that, as the closest finish in NASCAR history, exemplified everything that's right about NASCAR racing. David beat Goliath that day -- and the duel was so amazing even Goliath had to grin.
How awesome is this note I received from Candy Mashburn on Facebook:
"For me, it's Ricky Craven's win over Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003. My husband built that car that Ricky won in. I will never forget watching that race live, and I still feel that excitement when I see it played back. To me, that was the ultimate win. My husband has had many wins since then, but none have compared to that one."
• The 2001 Pepsi 400 at Daytona, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to the beach and won at the same track that took his father's life only months before, then got out of his car in the infield grass and rejoiced with millions of weeping fans worldwide.
• The 2001 Daytona 500. NASCAR's darkest hour. It seems odd to me that Dale Earnhardt's death belongs on a list of iconic moments. But when he died, how he died and the reaction in the aftermath make it an impossible omission. He was The Man. He was Elvis and John Wayne and everything in between.
• The 1998 Daytona 500, when, after two cruel decades of trying, Big E finally exorcised the demons, then eased down pit road where every man on every crew stood waiting to congratulate him. It is the greatest show of respect in the sport's history. It never happened before that, and hasn't happened since
but it's not the most iconic moment.
The Fight is.
The 1979 Daytona 500 was a perfect storm, in more ways than one. Mother Nature blanketed the Northeast with snow, and for the first time ever CBS televised a race live, flag-to-flag. It was a seminal moment for NASCAR: the big stage, unimpeded.
Down on the apron after the checkered flag, Bobby Allison stopped his car to check on his brother, to see if he wanted a ride back to the pits, and Cale started hollering at Bobby that he had triggered the wreck.
Then the "inbred" insults started flying, and Cale lunged at Bobby and caught him in the face -- with his helmet. When the blood dripped into his lap, Bobby was confused. And irate.
He knew it was now or never. Either address it right now or it'll follow you forever.
They got to fightin' and wrasslin' and carryin' on, and, as Bobby tells it, Cale went to beating Bobby's fists with his nose.
All of this played out on national television. Like a bulldog, it was so ugly it was beautiful.
Suddenly, NASCAR was water-cooler talk.
The rest is history.
For the first time in 2010, The Six We'll start with a question/initiative very dear to me -- Liam Witt.
Last year, or maybe a couple years ago, you wrote about a little boy with cancer named Liam and asked us to send him Valentine's cards. It was so touching, and we were wondering how he's doing. Can you update us, please?
-- Tammie Catanaldo, Memphis, Tenn.
I get this question a lot. And I typically answer individually. But this time is different. Liam Witt is an amazing, beautiful little boy, Tammie. And, sadly, a sick one.
He is 5 years old now, and in April his parents learned he'd relapsed. Cancer was found in two new locations: his left leg and right shoulder. He began high-dose chemo and radiation treatments almost immediately. My heart breaks for him.
Liam and millions of kids like him need hope. If you're in the Charlotte area May 23 for the All-Star Race and/or Coca-Cola 600 festivities, or for the Hall of Fame induction, make your way to zMax Dragway.
J.D. and Melissa Gibbs are hosting Taylor's Finish Line Festival, an event honoring their own 5-year-old son, Taylor, who recently had his final treatment for cancer. The event will be amazing and will raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Levine Children's Hospital. NASCAR drivers will be there. So will other athletes.
At that event, the Gibbs graciously offered space to another pediatric cancer initiative: Cookies For Kids' Cancer, a foundation Liam's mother, Gretchen, started. CFKC will host a bake sale that day to raise money for pediatric cancer research. Every dime will be donated to research.
Cookies For Kids' Cancer hopes to raise 50 grand that day.
I'll be there. So will my wallet. I hope to see you there, too.
It seems to me like Denny Hamlin has really matured a lot this year. Is it because the media said he should contend for a championship? What's the difference?
-- Charles Thornton, Fayetteville, Ark.
No question, Charles. Absolutely none. Hamlin is the real-deal Holyfield. And his maturity is manifested not only behind the wheel, but behind the microphone, too.
At the mike, he's become a go-to voice of reason in the garage. He's unafraid to tackle any subject honestly, sort of a younger Jeff Burton (Virginia pride).
At the wheel he has finally grasped a fundamental principle of Cup success: You can't win races at the 100-mile mark. He used to try to win on the first lap, and invariably he'd get carried away and wind up in trouble, sometimes squandering excellent opportunities.
Now he settles in, offers feedback and trusts Mike Ford to make the proper adjustments. He doesn't lose his mind in frustration -- as if his career is over -- if his car isn't performing well. Look at Richmond. By his standards he was awful at RIR. He wasn't happy about it, but he didn't sulk, either.
Two years ago he'd have been ready to quit.
These days he comes back a week later and sweeps what may be NASCAR's toughest track (Darlington) -- with a bum wheel, no less.
On Saturday night, after he won the Southern 500, I asked him what he had learned about himself at Phoenix. See, at Phoenix he changed the game. He was 10 days removed from reconstructive knee surgery and two laps down, driving a glorified Wal-Mart shopping cart. He was plumb miserable, and could have gotten out without a soul questioning it. No one.
But he didn't. He stayed after it, gutted it out. Drivers are hard-headed. Ford said he knew Hamlin would stay in it, because he couldn't stomach watching someone else drive his ride. I get that. But Phoenix is physical. The pain must have been awful.
But the respect he got as a result is ample medicine. You aren't handed that type of respect. It is earned.
Hamlin didn't want to answer my question. It went like this.
Me: "What did staying in that race car at Phoenix teach you about you?"
Hamlin: "It's tough to talk about myself."
Me: "Do it anyway."
Hamlin: "I think it showed character and it shows I'm a team player. Those are two things that I can characterize it as. The easy way would have been to get out of the car, sit there, watch someone else go through hell for the rest of the race with a car that was dinged up.
"There's been many times my guys have gone over and beyond for me in certain situations and stuck up for me. If I tell them they did a crappy job, they still didn't care. They patted me on the back and we went on to next week.
"I felt like it was important for me to step up and do the same for them. It's paid off. People don't believe it, but it's paid off. We have those good pit stops at the end. Is it coincidence? Maybe. But I can tell you our team is hitting its stride. Everyone is getting along as good as they ever have.
"Good decision or bad decision, in my head, it was the only decision."
Excellent decision. Gutsy decision. Landmark decision.
I'm a Jeff Gordon fan, and I can't stand this season! It's driving me [bad word] crazy! Is he ever going to win again, Marty? What do they have to do?
-- Samantha in Red Bank, N.J.
Can't stand this season? Samantha for real? For the first time in years your boy actually has a snowball's chance to win that elusive fifth title, not to mention cars that can compete for wins every single weekend, and you're complaining? Really?
Listen, I respect the frustration of futility. But for the first time since 2007, being a 24 fan is not futile. Gordon said it himself at Richmond -- he, along with 41 other guys, had become largely irrelevant over the past several years at the hands of Jimmie Johnson's dominance.
And it ticked him off. Hence the rivalry. For the first time in years Gordon knows he has the chemistry and cars to run with Johnson. And he doesn't want to squander it. Anyone that tells you the gamesmanship between Gordon and Johnson is over is wrong.
Rick Hendrick requested (sternly) that they fix it. And out of respect for him, they adhered to his wishes. But, ladies and gentlemen, rivalries don't just fade instantly. They may be suppressed with consistent reminders from the boss of the potential detriment to the organization.
But these two guys want the same thing. And have for years and years and years. That doesn't subside.
Gordon's going to win in 2010 -- a lot. Once he gets one they'll come in droves. It's just how it works in racing. He's going to compete for the championship, too. And to do it, they need to do nothing more than what they're doing now.
They're fast everywhere, on every type of track. He could easily have five or six wins already. If I were you, I'd change my philosophy a little bit.
I'd think, "Man, it's nice to be relevant again."
Song of the week: "The Weary Kind," by Ryan Bingham. It's the theme song from "Crazy Heart," with Jeff Bridges. If you've not heard it, you owe it to yourself to hop on iTunes, pronto.
Your body aches
Playing your guitar and sweating out the hate
The days and the nights all feel the same
Whiskey has been a thorn in your side
And it doesn't forget
The highway that calls for your heart inside
Make-up-for-lost-time song of the week: "Way Out Here," by Josh Thompson. I don't think he grew up on Gale Road, but it sure does sound like it.
Our houses are protected by the good Lord and a gun
You might meet 'em both if you show up here not welcome, son
Our necks are burnt and roads are dirt and our trucks ain't clean
The dogs run loose, we smoke, we chew and fry everything
Way out here
Yes sir. Yes sir. Yes. Sir.
That's my time this week, Team. Thank you for yours.
I have a funny-face matchup to prepare for.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
It was the shot heard 'round the world. The sports world, that is. Cale Yarborough's postrace scuffle with Bobby Allison at the 1979 Daytona 500 put NASCAR on the nation's radar.