Songs, hot dogs and The Six

Music is a universal language. You needn't necessarily be capable of phonetically deciphering a respective song's words to grasp the magnitude of its message. I'm a big lyric guy, but when I hear a war chant in a foreign tongue I am apt to be every bit as moved as if it were "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Daytona 500.

And you guys know me -- I love nothing more than our national anthem.

Four years ago when my daddy died I was half-crazy. Possibly three-quarters. I hated everything, save the sweet grace of my wife and son. It was a terrible place. And I'm not proud of it, but just two people could buoy me: One's name was Jack. The other, Eric Church.

If you've read the forward I wrote to Eric's book, "A Song to Sing," you know this story. But my friendship with Church is rooted in heartbreak and founded on the music. It was always about the music. In the years since I shook his hand in a meet-and-greet line in Greensboro, N.C., an impenetrable bond has developed between Eric and me. He is my best friend.

But well before I knew him, the "Sinners Like Me" song train provided the perfect vehicle for my emotions in the moment.

Those 12 tracks let me cuss and cry and question why.

They let me get rowdy and proud and reminiscent.

They let me mourn my daddy the way my soul desired.

When nothing else helped, the music did.

And Eric had a pen in every song.

That will never leave me. It will be seared into my soul for the rest of my days.

That is the power of music. It is the same language to all listeners, but speaks differently to each individual.

It was just before dawn last Sunday in California, and I was walking from my car to the media room at Auto Club Speedway when I ran into a couple of college kids tending to a track suite. One requested a moment of my time, to ask some "how did you get here" advice. Then he asked me what my dream job would be if I didn't work for ESPN.

I answered, simply, that I'd dream to be an elite songwriter in Nashville. To me, they are the most talented folks breathing this air.

The ability to string chords and words into songs is a gift. To me, it is among the ultimate gifts.

In very few professions can three minutes change a life. Or save a life.

Doctor is one. Preacher, too.

And songwriting is one of them. Trust me.

Random aside …

The dynamic of that moment at Fontana prompted me to ponder what some of NASCAR's biggest stars might dream to become if they weren't superstar race car drivers. So I asked:

Jimmie Johnson: "My dream job would be playing the guitar. If racing didn't work out I'd still be working in racing somehow. If I didn't know of racing at all I'd have been a fireman. I've always loved the guitar, and so wish I could play. I grew up in a working-class family, and being a fireman falls right in line with that. Growing up in a fire area like I did, it was on the top of my mind. My closest friend's dad growing up was the captain of the local fire department, so that inspired me. He was a stud. I looked up to him."

Elliott Sadler: "I'd love to have a Cup ride with a team that wasn't downsizing or going out of business altogether. That seemed to happen to me a lot. No, honestly, I'd love to be a basketball coach in high school or college. That's my dream job. I always had such a passion for the game and I love teaching it. I have been a coach for local recreation league teams and assistant to my brother, who coaches varsity girls. Coaching high school kids matters. They're shaped by it."

Kevin Harvick: "I'm living my dream, but I was heading down the road toward being an architect. I like my [stuff] straight!"

Brad Keselowski: "Military. Because you have to be a badass."

Kasey Kahne: "Trucker. Long haul. Sleep in rest stops and [stuff]."

Mark Martin: "A DJ or a pilot. I love both!"

I asked Martin what his DJ name would be. It was funny. And unprintable.

As a Dale Sr. fan, I think Kevin Harvick has earned the right to run the No. 3, and think Richard Childress should think about bringing it back permanently.
-- Jim Goodwine, Stoner, Pa.

Quite frankly, Jim, I don't think Harvick has any interest whatsoever in running the No. 3. He has spent an entire Cup career trying to outrun it.


How many dogs will you consume this week in Martinsville?
-- Dave Nichols, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Zero, Dave. No lie. I've covered every Martinsville race since 1998. No dogs. I'm a pansy. I don't do pressed-pig parts, much less those which so seamlessly double as road flare or glow stick.

I'm sure they're as delectable as advertised. But those things should be served with a disclaimer and a diaper.

The Martinsville wiener is more red than pink. That's one variable that contributed to its legend. Not unlike the karaoke superstar down at the honky-tonk, it is a neon icon. DJ Deadmau5 should fling them into the crowd.

The history of the Martdog is rather simple: Track founder H. Clay Earles was the competitive type. He wanted the best of everything -- including, naturally, racing. But also hot dogs. At the time, a fella named Jesse Jones owned a small local company between Martinsville and Danville out on Route 58. The moment the Martinsville track first opened, in 1947, Mr. Earles began selling Jones' dogs. He never stopped. The hot dogs you eat this weekend may well be direct descendants of the ones Curtis Turner and Banjo Mathews inhaled between sips of Lightning.

Two dollars for the rest of your life.

No one on the Blue Ridge is especially certain when Mr. Earles concocted the specific presentation we see today, but that fashion is unmistakably Martinsville and, the track folks tell me, is the only way anyone in racing has consumed one.

Says Martinsville's Mike Smith, "While I can't share the exact ingredients, I can say one of the secrets is the fact the buns are steamed … makes them moist."

Steamed buns. Tricky.

"There are untold thousands of people in marketing today that would love to have a success story to their credit like that of the 'Famous Martinsville Speedway Hot Dog,'" said Martinsville president Clay Campbell, Mr. Earles' grandson. "Nobody here ever planned on it becoming such an iconic item, not only for Martinsville Speedway but the entire NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

"All the credit goes to our loyal fans who love having a hot dog or two, or three, along with some of the best racing on the circuit. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the competitors in the garage area who begin their daily ritual by starting a tally of the number consumed for the day."

Speaking of running tallies, a couple of years ago several of my media cohorts held a contest to determine NASCAR's King Dog. The winner, my man Matt Dillner (@matthewdillner) -- who shoots many of the sitdown interviews I do for NASCAR Countdown -- dominated.

He's a beefcake, Kobayashi with a telephoto lens.

All said Dillner pounded 54 dogs between Friday and Sunday. Fifty-four wieners + chili + slaw + onions + steamed bun = gastrointestinal flat-line.

"I'm done with competitive eating," Dillner said. "Now I only eat for the pure joy of the Jesse Jones. I still eat, man, just don't compete. I didn't get sick, but I did feel all warm and fuzzy on race day. That was probably due to the nitrates. I love those dogs. They look terrifying but taste delicious."

Granted, Dillner succumbed to sponsor pressure. The Modified team Riggs Racing bought every dog he housed. Feeling quite gluttonous, Dillner matched their investment with a cash donation of his own to Motor Racing Outreach.

It was about 100 bucks.

Earlier in the weekend, Dillner was in the media room, chatting. The King Richard Petty walks in, eases past Dillner but stops short, stares at him, peers at the dog in his hand and back up at Dillner. King says, "Hold on," digs into his jeans pocket and pulls out a SINGLE Tums tablet. Not a bottle, not a roll. A random, loose Tum.

"You might need this," King said, laughing.

Song Of The Week

"City of New Orleans," Willie's version. I've always had a thing for trains.

And the sons of pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep,
Are rockin' to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.

Speaking of shout-outs to long-haul transit, there's a fantastic line in Jason Aldean's new single "Fly Over States," written by Neil Thrasher and Michael Dulaney, that chronicles a "flatbed cowboy, stackin' U.S. Steel on a three-day haul," that's so vivid. Great writing.


Does regular-season performance mean ANYTHING in the Chase? Drivers like Kyle and Smoke seem to suggest otherwise.

It certainly seems as if it means nothing. It once seemed vital, back when the Chase was all new and approaching it was still foreign. But not anymore. Not since teams rationalized the season's new breakdown.

You nailed it in your comment. Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart provide the consummate examples of how drivers are not the same between the playoffs and regular season. I had dinner with a championship crew chief during the offseason, and he told me elite drivers can go to another level of excellence when they so choose. That made absolutely no sense to me. If the end result is winning, as it was for Smoke last fall, why not do it every single weekend? His answer: "Because it's too hard." Basically, the season is too long and too taxing to work that hard every weekend. I find that fascinating and perplexing.

The thing is, it's different for every driver on every team. No one driver's scenario and circumstance is the same. What matters in October for Kevin Harvick may have been honed in March. What matters for Jimmie Johnson in October may have been honed in 2006. See? Every man has unique variables to his own situation.

But make no mistake; the dynamics of Chase competition are quite different than the regular season. Mistakes made during the regular season that draw a shoulder shrug and a "we'll-get-'em-next-week" mark the onset of the demise. Therefore the mental aspect -- read: pressure -- is so much more unrelenting. Drivers say it's just another race. But it's not. They say they approach it no differently. And they may genuinely believe that. But it's difficult, if not impossible.


Complete this sentence: "If your all star event needs a flow chart to explain it …." #TheSix
-- Bernadette Vielhaber, Cleveland, Ohio

Line 'em up and drop the rag. There's a million bucks on the line. That's the only rule that matters.


Do you think Tony Stewart could be in for another historical year?
-- Stephen McCall, A Sorority House

Indeed, Stephen. The impenetrable confidence that defined his dominant 2011 Chase march hasn't waned. Swagger is the perfect descriptive. It's not cocky. It's supremely dialed emotionally. Some would beg to differ, of course. The tongue-lashings and sarcastic indifference are part of the package. Some love it. Some hate it.

All respect it, whether they'll tell you so or not.

What Stewart's doing is terrifying for everyone else in Nomex. He's always had elite driving talent. It's the progression of his business acumen that I find most impressive. I figure that maturation has a lot to do with ownership. It grew him up a lot. Another part of ownership is making damn tough decisions -- like the one that sent Darian Grubb packing, only to be replaced by Steve Addington. It was incomprehensible to win a title and look for work. I disagreed with him.

But now, five races into the 2012 season it seems a shrewd move. Stewart and Denny Hamlin -- Grubb's new running mate -- have combined to win three of the season's first five events. Grubb's approach reinvigorated Hamlin. His selfless nature reminded Hamlin that he and his team are championship-caliber. Meanwhile, Addington is having the time of his life.

"I think if you talk to myself and Denny and Steve and Darian, I don't think the four of us combined would say we were all going to start this good," Stewart said. "But we've had an awesome start to the year, and Denny and Darian have had an awesome start. So I think it's working out for both sides really well."

Addington said he expected to perform well, but maybe not this early. He said Stewart's willingness to trust his judgment gives him the confidence to take risks.

"That's the big key -- knowing he is going to stick with you with whatever decision you make," Addington said.

Stewart and Hamlin jostled for the lead all day at Auto Club Speedway before the downpour came that ended the race. And when the sky did open, both had a key decision to make: Pit or stay out. Grubb pitted. Addington stayed.

"In our mind if the race went back green, your chance of winning really decreases greatly, because all the cars that pitted, you have to restart behind them," Hamlin said. "We either [were going to] lose some spots now if the race ends, or it's just a situation where we still put ourselves in a good spot to win if it goes back green.

"We got a good car, top two-or-three-car, and just now got it to where we can get to Tony and then it rains."

Standing in a soggy Victory Lane on Sunday evening, Stewart credited the three men who have crew-chiefed his cars in the Sprint Cup Series -- Greg Zipadelli, Grubb and Addington.

Then he stopped mid-sentence, looked at me and said, "Well … I got Zippy back this year, so who knows … maybe one day I'll get Darian back, too …"


Kasey Kahne's start has been horrible. Is it due to bad luck or is the curse of the 25 car victimizing yet another driver at HMS?
-- Chris Nulty, Crestview, Fla.

I believe in luck. Not curses. Kahne is blazing fast everywhere we go. But he's snake-bit and naturally frustrated. It'll get better. Soon.

Thanks for hanging out, Team. I appreciate you.