Songs, dirt, Smoke and running

Tony Stewart is spending more and more time racing on dirt. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The power of a song knows no measure and is greater than ample description. A tune makes time, space and emotion acute. Most songs are quickly recognizable by era and genre, but a keen lyric is forever. A melody is a teleportation device that carries you from present to past -- from right now to back then -- instantly.

And when that happens, we learn and relearn the magic of music.

Because back then matters. It might be heartache. It might be failure. It might be your first love, your first kiss or your first dance. It might mean birth or death or the vivid final stages of either.

It might mean flying down a back road with your buddies after a Friday night win against a crosstown rival. It might be the butterflies of a summer evening drive with the windows down and the radio up, one hand on your crush's knee and the other on the wheel.

It might be the day your granddaddy died. It might be the day your hero died. Those might be one and the same. It might be the day an icon stopped time. That happened to me the day Dale Earnhardt died.

It was Feb. 19, 2001, 2:30 a.m. As my wife Lainie and I drove out the Turn 4 tunnel at Daytona International Speedway, mentally and emotionally exhausted on that sorrowful, crushing day, the Lee Ann Womack song "I Hope You Dance" came upon my radio.

To this very moment -- no matter where I am in the world -- when that song comes on my radio I am in Daytona Beach, Fla., wounded and confused, staring blankly at the spot where NASCAR racing changed forever. I am instantly jettisoned back to the fine details of the moment, trying to grasp the magnitude of this earthquake that cracked the sport's foundation. I am worried about and hurt for Dale Jr.

I have an uneasy feeling in my stomach about it even now.

The other four senses, too, produce emotion within me, just not to the same degree. Sometimes these days, out on some North Carolina byway, I'll catch a whiff of freshly cut hay mixed with a freshly lit Marlboro Light and I'll think of my daddy and his old blue Ford Ranger pickup truck and Waylon Jennings on the radio dial. And I'll put Jennings on the radio dial. That feels really good. I feel close to him there.

Sometimes I see the color magenta and I recall the first 64-pack of Crayola crayons my momma ever bought my sister and me. That box of crayons was a badge for Momma. She was damn proud of that box. It had a sharpener on the back. I was probably 8 years old or so, and when I was young, we didn't have much. It was the first time I'd ever seen magenta or turquoise or lavender. Those colors still make me proud. They're a symbol for me that we as a family had persevered past primary and were plowing our way into secondary.

Every now and then a gust of wind will brush past my neck and ears and give me a chill, and I recall the sweet shiver of the vent fan at the end of the hallway in my childhood home and waking from a particularly cozy summer nap there as a young boy.

There is no taste that makes me emotional.

But sound. Nothing compares to sound.

Whether a particular emotion is good or bad in the moment, reminiscence of it years later is often very sweet when paired with a song. Because with time comes insight and healing. Whether the emotion was good or bad then, it often signals a seminal moment in the transition between who you were and who you are.

As regular readers of this column know, "Sinners Like Me" saved my life. When nothing else could buoy the anguish I felt following my father's death in 2008, Eric Church's first record could. And did. "Sinners Like Me" was my lyrical life preserver. I've heard that song 5,000 times in the past five years. I still feel the same way I felt the first time.

When I think of my wedding, I think of my pretty wife and Garth Brooks. His song, "To Make You Feel My Love," is our wedding song. I hear it now and I feel invincible. When I hear George Strait sing "Run," I think about 9/11 and his emotional performance during a benefit concert weeks later. When I hear Tim McGraw's "We Carry On," it's Oct. 24, 2004, and I'm on Virginia Highway 220 in the pitch-black night, driving home from Martinsville Speedway.

This is a weird one. Every time I hear "So Far Away" by Staind, I think about Matt Kenseth's 2003 championship. That was the song playing as attendees exited the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom the night of his banquet. See? Weird.

I could go on and on. But you get the idea. Songs are time stamps in our evolution.

I was reminded of that power this week. I was in Washington visiting a friend who plays music and writes music and adores music as much as I do. Possibly more. For him, like me, it is an essential nutrient, like water and air for our souls.

It is a vehicle to carry emotions we wouldn't otherwise display. He's the only guy I've ever met who pounds his fist and snarls his lip like I do when the right song comes on the radio at the right moment, company or context be damned.

You're in or you're out, and we don't rightly care either way.

After my buddy finished work that evening, we ordered some drinks and took turns playing iTunes DJ. That transitioned into YouTube DJ, once we wanted to hear songs that shaped our youth but weren't in our respective expansive catalogues. (But are now).

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: "Fishing in the Dark"

Steve Earle: "Copperhead Road"
Doug Supernaw: "I Don't Call Him Daddy"; "Red and Rio Grande"
Doug Stone: "I Never Knew Love"; "I'd Be Better Off (In a Pine Box)"
Little Texas: "What Might Have Been"

Pam Tillis: "Maybe It Was Memphis"

Daryle Singletary: "I Let Her Lie"; "Too Much Fun"
Mark Chesnutt: "Bubba Shot the Jukebox"; "It Sure Is Monday"
Wade Hayes: "Old Enough to Know Better"
Neal McCoy: "No Doubt About It"
Ty Herndon: "What Mattered Most"

Joe Diffie: "John Deere Green"; "Pickup Man"
Kathy Mattea: "18 Wheels and a Dozen Roses"

Blackhawk: "Postmarked Birmingham"; "I Sure Can Smell the Rain"; "Goodbye Says It All"
Conway Twitty: "That's My Job"
Willie Nelson and Ray Charles: "Seven Spanish Angels"

Every song told a story.

And every song produced one.

And that, to me, is the magic of a song.

So excited #TheSix is back! My husband and I have always wondered if Tony Stewart's dirt racing helps his NASCAR racing or the other way around. Have you ever asked him about that? Does it? Go Smoke!
-- Heather Bouchard, Fort Wayne, Ind.

First of all, Stewart's dirt-track success is stunning. It is difficult to properly articulate how difficult it is to jump from an 800-horsepower, 3,500-pound stock car on pavement to a 925-horsepower, 1,450-pound winged sprint car on dirt. It's like the difference between a commercial jet and a fighter jet. They're both planes. They both fly. But the performance dynamics of flying them are quite different.

I talked to Blake Feese about this. Feese was a World of Outlaws winner before he came south to race stock cars. He said what Stewart and Kyle Larson are doing is not only difficult, but it has yet to resonate with fans. Unless you do it, it's nearly impossible to respect the achievement.

Outlaw cars are unforgiving machines. Drivers must run 30 to 40 mistake-free laps. That's nuts. Feese explained that if you make a mistake leading an Outlaw race, you're looking out the corner of your eye for a wheel -- another driver will be sliding at you, making your life hell.

They won't wreck you, but they will come close and do everything but wreck you. That is the only series in the country I've seen where that is the case. In every other series, you can bobble and not worry about it.

I talked to Kasey Kahne about this too. He echoed what Feese said, that drivers seek different things from their cars in each series and that the feel you need as a driver is different because of how much they slide. That, in turn, requires a different driving style.

Granted, it's far easier for Stewart now than it was two years ago, based solely on repetitions. He's doing it so much these days that it's become easier. And yes, the dirt success does transfer to his day job.

"It helps on the restarts, for sure," Stewart said. "I'm definitely more aggressive on the restarts. In sprint car racing, you have to get a lot done at the start and on restarts, and I think that part has really been a positive and really been a help in making me more aggressive.

"Even though Cup races are much longer races, being able to get guys while they're getting up to speed or while their tires are building pressure, that more aggressive attitude helps me on the restarts because I can pick up an extra spot here and there."

There is a mental impact for Stewart as well. In 2012, he ran 46 dirt races, the most during his Sprint Cup Series career. He notes that success on dirt buoys frustration in Cup. He has started very slowly in 2013. Take Martinsville, for example. His No. 14 car never was quite dialed in at the paperclip, but the night before at Selinsgrove Speedway he had "a perfect night, really."

He broke the track record, won his heat and won the Main -- from the back. Rather than sit in the bus and fret over a poor-performing Cup car, he went and won in a sprint car.

"I came back to the track excited. I came to the driver's meeting the next morning excited and got in the race car excited," Stewart said. "A lot of times, a good night of racing the night before gives you a lot of momentum going into the next day.

"It's like hitting a reset button for me. It's a lot of effort, a lot of money and a lot of time involved to do all this, but it's worth it. It's worthwhile because it's something not everybody can do."

Stewart has the resources to compete at a high level and no family to balance. He's married to race cars.

"I have a German shepherd who doesn't care where we go; he's just happy to go with us," Stewart said. "I have the flexibility a lot of these other drivers don't. But even if they had the time, I'm not sure they'd want to go run 70 dirt races on top of a 38-race Cup schedule.

"It's just what I enjoy. It's my release. I'm a very competitive person. I like my downtime, but I like being busy on the weekends. I enjoy being able to go run dirt races and Cup races. Being busy with all of that keeps me sharp.

"I ran the most dirt races I ever ran last year since I've been a Cup driver with 46, and with that I probably had one of the most fun years of my life even though it wasn't my best year in Cup. But the nine races we won in the sprint car helped balance that out."

I see you tweet a lot about your running and triathlon races. I'm a triathlete, too, and I'm sick for those runners. All that work for nothing. What were your thoughts about the Boston Marathon? I'm a runner. It sickened me for everyone there.
-- Greg in Fairmont, W.Va.

I banter often about running culture with fellow runners at racetracks, in airports and bars and via social media, Greg. There is a distinct camaraderie among those of us who find great joy and accomplishment in simply placing one foot in front of the other one. Distance matters not. Speed either.

Many of those brethren have asked my thoughts this week about the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. Like most of you, I've thought a lot about it.

The bombing made me very angry, and on multiple levels. Many of those levels are fundamental to most Americans: the attack on innocent people, the violation of our freedom and the sheer disregard for precious human life.

I've heard native New Englanders note with deep frustration that the joyous Patriots' Day tradition was compromised. Only New Englanders can truly understand that passion.

Similarly, only runners -- and maybe only long-distance runners or extreme triathletes -- can fully grasp the frustration of having had a competitive dream crushed that day. It is admittedly trivial in the face of such tragedy, but it is no less true. Those who have lived the physical, mental and emotional commitment of six months spent training for and facilitating a completed marathon understand my point.

So many in Boston were robbed of that. But they press on, fueled by the runner's resolve and thanks for the ability to run again.

I ran every day this week, for no other reason than because I can. As I ran Thursday, I let the music fall silent. I pushed my 11-month old daughter, Vivie, and thought of my favorite children's book.

It's called "Someday," and it is one of the greatest pieces of prose ever written.

This is an excerpt from the book, which was written by Alison McGhee:

Someday your eyes will be filled with a joy so deep that they shine.
Someday you will run so fast and so far your heart will feel like fire.
Someday you will swing high -- so high, higher than you ever dared to swing.
Someday you will hear something so sad that you will fold up with sorrow.
Someday you will call a song to the wind, and the wind will carry your song away.
Someday I will stand on this porch and watch your arms waving to me until I no longer see you.

That sums up well my feelings this week.

God bless Boston. God bless West, Texas. God bless America.

Stand up and sing the "Star Spangled Banner" when you hear it. Don't let a tragedy define that pride. Let your country define that pride.