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Columns, Non-Daily
Third Place
Mike Hembree, NASCAR Scene


NASCAR pioneer Cotton Owens fighting a tough battle

     Your mother wanted you to be a doctor, right? Well, maybe a lawyer, but probably a doctor. Doctors heal people. They bring new life into the world. They dine at the country club. They drive Porsches.

     Even doctors, though, face the dark side.

     Brandon Davis is a 32-year-old internist in Spartanburg, S.C. He’s relatively young as physicians go, but his reputation is excellent, his waiting room is often full, and he’s that cool combination of good doctor and good guy.

     Davis, too, sees the grim side of medicine. He has stared at the X-rays that show gloom and seen the blood tests that indicate the worst.

     “I’ve delivered a lot of bad news,” he said.

     Cotton Owens, one of NASCAR’s pioneer racers, visited Davis’ office in October 2005. Owens, a smoker for most of his 81 years, had been coughing up blood, and more than a little.

     The first order of business was a chest X-ray, and that simple test immediately made it clear that the rest of Owens’ life would be lived in shadows. The X-ray showed a baseball-sized mass in his right lung, and, although more definitive tests would be needed to prove his preliminary diagnosis, Davis was virtually certain it was cancer. And that it was advanced.

     Davis walked into the examination room where Owens waited and steeled himself to break the kind of news he had shared with other patients since his graduation from medical school. Doctors are trained in these matters, but that doesn’t make them easy.

     “It was without question one of the worst days of my life,” Davis said. “I was tearful, and I’m not someone quick to cry. I told him that he had a large mass in his lung and that I’d bet anything that it was cancer. He was matter-of-fact about it, but it was difficult for me to deal with. I canceled my appointments for the rest of the day.”

     That was almost two years ago, and, in the Spartanburg garage where a fair amount of stock-car racing history has been written, Owens still keeps regular hours. The only real difference is that cigarette smoke no longer hangs in the office.

     Owens’ friends and relatives still come and go. There is no crisis mode. In fact, life is as close to normal as you’d expect from one of racing’s pioneer gentlemen – a guy who raced hard, competed at the fiercest levels as both driver and mechanic, built important vehicle innovations and, despite wrestling tooth and nail with some of them, stayed friends with just about everybody who crossed his path over those years.

     The lines of the years and of the racing cross his face, but only those who have been told know of the black cloud following him.

     Cotton is still Cotton. Now 83, he is still the patriarch of an extended family that includes three grandsons who drove dirt race cars built at Cotton Owens Enterprises. Those days were some of his happiest in racing. He looks like he could still wheel a car around a half-mile.

     Owens’ cancer was basically inoperable. To remove the tumor would mean removing his right lung, and his age and health history made that choice problematic. He decided against chemotherapy and radiation because he had seen the potential effects of those treatments in too many other people, including his father in the days before his death.

     Besides, Owens said, his life has been long and good. “It’s not like you’re never going to die,” he said. “I know I’m going to die. I’ll continue to enjoy life as it comes. Nothing has really changed. I’m a little short of breath, but I guess that goes along with smoking all those years. But I don’t hurt anywhere.”

     Time has revealed that Owens’ choice was the right one. A series of X-rays has shown no growth in the tumor, and there are no indications the cancer has spread.

     Still, Owens knows that there are difficult days ahead, and he is enjoying life to the fullest. That means hanging around the shop. It means enjoying lunch at the Peach Blossom Diner with David Pearson, his former driver, Bud Moore, another Spartanburg racing legend, and a revolving cast of friends.

     And it means playing with a growing string of great-grandchildren, for whom the famous racer is simply Pop.
     Watching from the corner on those family outings is Brandon Davis, one of the three grandson racers who ran Cotton Owens Enterprises dirt cars and decided to become not a driver but a doctor.

Gordon handles milestone moment with class

What would Dale have done? If he had been at Phoenix International Raceway Saturday night to see (or participate in) Jeff Gordon’s landmark 76th career victory, Dale Earnhardt would have been the first person to victory lane to congratulate the kid who showed up in the early 1990s to challenge his dominant place in the sport.

     As it turned out, it was Dale’s namesake, the son who was left to pick up the challenge and to take on Gordon for the millions of red-clad fans who demand the Earnhardt-Gordon confrontation, who made the trip to congratulate Gordon on finally reaching No. 76.

     It was a remarkable moment in the Arizona desert at a nondescript race track that otherwise has played little significant role in NASCAR history.

     After winning for the first time since last summer, Gordon stopped to pick up a huge flag emblazoned with the stylized “3” from Earn-hardt’s six championship years with Richard Childress, a number that remains so sacred in NASCAR lore that it isn’t being used and it isn’t retired – it’s sort of canonized.

     For perhaps the first time in history, Gordon found himself being cheered by die-hard Earnhardt fans as he circled the track on a victory lap, the No. 3 flag flying in the wind.

     For months, since Gordon reached win No. 75 last July at Chicagoland, there had been the question of what it all would mean when he won one more to tie Earnhardt at 76.

     Here is what it means: A lot.

     Earnhardt Jr. seemed to say as much with his animated gestures of congratulations in the Phoenix victory lane. He talked to Gordon and reached inside the car to congratulate him in an emotional moment that went far beyond a simple acknowledgment of Gordon’s accomplishment. From day one, Junior has had a friendly relationship with Gordon, as did his father. Although fans on both sides of the Gordon-Earnhardt divide – and it surely is a divide – have dreamed of a fierce, lasting rivalry between the drivers, it never really developed between Gordon and Senior, and there have been very few bumper-to-bumper confrontations between Gordon and Junior.

     Despite their differences – Senior believed boats were for fishing, Gordon for floating – they developed a close relationship, one that eventually produced several business partnerships.

     Gordon came into the sport with great respect for Earnhardt’s accomplishments and his position as the biggest force – in numerous ways – in the garage area. When talk began about an appropriate way to mark the 76th victory, Gordon initially rejected the idea of displaying the 3 flag for fear that some fans might think his team wanted to irritate the Earnhardt faithful.

     “We just wanted to honor him,” Gordon said. “It was a special moment. It was a special night. It means the world to me.”

     Gordon learned how to race, in part, by watching Earnhardt, by following him. One of his first big lessons came in his rookie season in 1993, ironically at Phoenix. Gordon said he raced Earnhardt aggressively for position in the third turn and soon found himself in the wall.

     “I think that was a way for him to teach the rookie how things were going to be,” Gordon said.
     Gordon learned that lesson – and more, much more. He steadily climbed the victory chart, won his first championship at 24 (Earnhardt scored his first at 29), matched Earnhardt’s consecutive victory streak of four and notched three Daytona 500 wins to Earnhardt’s one. Earnhardt leads in championships, seven to four, but Gordon, the points leader, seems to be well on the way to a fifth.

     Where will this end? Gordon and Earnhardt are tied for sixth on the all-time win list. Richard Petty’s unreachable 200 always will rule that column. David Pearson is next at 105. Gordon could catch him, although most observers would rank that as a longshot.

     Next on Gordon’s hit list is Cale Yarborough with 83 wins, then Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison with 84 each.

     Thanks in part to lessons learned during the years he drove in Earnhardt’s shadow, he seems destined to move past that impressive trio in the not-too-distant future.

     On this night in Phoenix, though, the important numbers were 24 and 76 – and 3. 

Jeff Gordon did everything he could to win, in a no-win situation

     Jeff Gordon’s next victory – one that seems an eternity in coming – will tie him at 76 career wins with Dale Earnhardt Sr. Gordon says he isn’t thinking a lot about that landmark moment. He has other things on his mind, of course, like the upcoming birth of his first child, the lead in the Nextel Cup point standings and lassoing control of the car of tomorrow.

     The 76th win, though, clearly will be an emotional moment for Gordon, despite his protestations.

     On a somewhat cruel April Fools’ Day at Martinsville, Gordon could see the elusive win – he hasn’t visited victory lane since last July – through the elevated wing of teammate Jimmie Johnson’s car. They slashed around Martinsville’s tight half-mile for the closing 50 laps of the race in a tight one-two tandem, Johnson forever in the lead, Gordon perpetually planted in his shadow.

In the end, there was some righteous racing. Gordon tried everything within the bounds of friendship and team order to bump and thump Johnson from the lead without sending him into a spin.

     This was some delicate interplay in a sport that  generally doesn’t promote delicacy. It was made even more so by the fact that the race was the second for the new COT, and the characteristics of the vehicle put a new twist on the old bump-and-run that often is the climactic move in short-track races.

     It’s easy to assume that the race would have ended quite differently if the first- and second-place cars had not been driven by teammates and close friends. Despite the fact that the COT’s design doesn’t provide for easy bumper-to-bumper contact (Tab A doesn’t align properly with Slot B), a second-place driver still could spin the leader and claim the win with the right sort of overt contact.

     Gordon, humming along in second place and with a wide-open track to try whatever maneuver he could produce, was in a no-win situation. Literally. He could slam his teammate and inherit the victory. He could cause a big wreck that might also involve the No. 24 and cost both Hendrick drivers the win, a move that team owner Rick Hendrick has seen produced by a couple of his other drivers and one that he doesn’t want to experience again.

     So Gordon played the game like a surgeon. He repeatedly bumped the rear of Johnson’s car with enough force to rattle Johnson but not enough to dump him unceremoniously from the lead. Gordon pulled inside of Johnson several times as they moved into the braking areas of the turns, but Johnson was able to pull away down the straightaways and avoid the pass.

     It was classic short-track theater that was enhanced even more by the run for the money from the third turn on the last lap to the checkered flag. A bump gave Gordon the inside line in three, and he pulled alongside Johnson. They sliced through Turn 4, and their fenders banged together as they straightened their cars for the race to the line. Johnson won by 0.065 second.

     After the race, Gordon seemed like the Miss America first runnerup – glad, but sad and mad. He said all the right things about a relatively clean race between teammates and congratulated Johnson on the win, but he also had something to say about Johnson’s aggressive blocking and indicated that their next tight race might be handled differently, at least from his perspective.

     And Johnson? He knew he held the trump card. It was unlikely that Gordon would push him to and then beyond the limit in the closing laps (although Johnson described a couple of Gordon’s bumps as hard enough to deploy an air bag in a passenger car).

     The dash to the finish was just as it should have been – a dance on a tightrope featuring two of the sport’s best drivers. Either could have used the rope to choke the other. Neither did.

     Yet the finish was memorable. It was better than a bump-and-run. Maybe it would have been a tad more “memorable” if Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards or Kurt Busch had been behind Johnson, but that should not take away from its shine.

Mark Martin: First place in the standings and in your heart

Even those of us who have stalked Mark Martin for most of his career and who have been equipped with pad, pen, recorder and a wide range of philosophy courses don’t fully understand him. But that’s OK. We can appreciate him.

     Martin is an enigma wrapped inside a conundrum trapped inside a gunslinger’s body working a job that he loves.

     Going into this week’s race at Las Vegas, Martin is in first place in the Nextel Cup standings. Six months ago, this would have been unthinkable.

     The most remarkable thing about Martin’s current position, however, is that, at least to him, it’s not that remarkable. It’s simply what you get when you combine a hard-nosed, smart racer and a better-than-average and rapidly improving race team. It’s also not remarkable, in the Martin world view, because it’s simply not that important.

     After the March 18 race in Atlanta, Martin could add a striking asterisk by his name. He could become the guy who had the Cup points lead and voluntarily – no, almost happily – gave it up.

     He entered this season with the intention of driving part time for Ginn Racing, and he roared into March with that idea still clearly at the forefront of his thinking, despite the fact that almost everybody else you talk to figures he’d be foolish to throw away a shot at a championship that has been so frustratingly elusive for him to achieve in an otherwise banner career.

     That is pure Mark Martin, though. He isn’t necessarily going to do what you think is right for him. He might eventually decide to run the full schedule, but you get the feeling he’ll have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the fray, arms flailing and firesuit tattered.

     Martin is a millionaire with a $4 haircut, a driver for whom victory is more relief than joy (he could be the only pessimist at an Amway convention), a 48-year-old dedicated weight-lifter whose razor-cut body doesn’t hide the struggles etched along the age lines of his face.

     Despite the money and the luxuries, Martin’s life has been a tough one. He was raised hard, and he has had struggles, both personally and professionally. There were times in his career when a smart gambler would have bet the farm that Martin would wind up racing in some backwater cowtown, far from the bright lights of Daytona, if indeed he raced at all.

     “I’ve worked really hard, and I haven’t taken the time to enjoy it,” Martin says. “I really appreciate where I am in my career now and the privilege I have of being treated with so much respect. Now I have the opportunity to choose what I do. I really haven’t felt like I’ve had a choice. Sponsors and owners and managers have sort of dictated to me. Now, instead of being faced with the all or nothing – all was not an option and nothing was not an option. Now I have a nice blend.”

     The contradictions that surround Martin the racer and Martin the man show most clearly in the life of his son, Matt, a 15-year-old who is deep into military history and paintball and, by the way, racing.

     Matt has been racing virtually since he was able to stand. He doesn’t shave, but he has the experience of a graybeard. Matt’s shop near the Martins’ Daytona Beach home is decorated with all manner of awards, a string of his old race cars and glass-enclosed firesuits that seem to range from toddler to teen.

     Yet the assumption that son will follow father is one that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

     “When he was 7 years old, I wanted him to be the greatest race-car driver who ever lived,” Martin says. “And I don’t want him to do it now. I’ve had a change of heart. If he decides that’s what he wants to do, then I’ll support it and help him in any way, but I want better for him than for me.

     “There’s an old saying that if you’re going to be dumb, you have to be tough. Well, I’m real tough. He is not as tough as I am, but he’s not nearly as dumb, either. I would hate for my kid to have to be as tough as I’ve had to be. This stuff didn’t just fall into my life in the last six months. For me, because I’m dumb, getting here was ugly.”

     Making ugly pretty. That’s been a Martin success.

Death never an easy subject for journalists to cover

     Ricky Knotts died on an otherwise promising day at Daytona International Speedway. He had come south in the winter of 1980 to try to carve out a place for himself in NASCAR. Then, in a more innocent time, it was easier. There was reason to think that, despite his family’s relative lack of financing and his lack of expertise in big-track, big-time racing – this would be his first time on a superspeedway – he could make a go of it in the Daytona 500. If he made the race, good things could happen, both in the 500 and in the weeks and months to follow.

     So they – Knotts, his father and a few hangers-on – arrived in Daytona Beach for Daytona 500 activities on a shoestring and a hope. Knotts lined up for one of the two qualifying races for the 500 and figured he had as good a shot as any of the other no-name newcomers to finish high enough to make the 500 field.

     Instead, the worst happened. And in the worst of ways. Knotts was involved in a three-car crash and lost control of his car in the trioval at one of the fastest points on the track. His car sailed across the apron and hit the inside wall at near-full speed. He died instantly. Up-close video footage of the crash scene was destroyed because of its gruesome nature.

     Although Knotts’ death was not immediately confirmed, it was clear to some of us in the press box that the young driver was at least critically injured – and probably worse. A colleague and I left for the infield, virtually certain that this would be a day we wouldn’t be writing about sport but rather about the stark dangers of racing in the high wind of Daytona.

      The garage area was full of whispers about the new guy that few knew. My friend mentioned that this was tough business, writing what amounted to an obituary for somebody we didn’t know, somebody we had barely seen.

     We talked to Knotts’ father, Richard, who was calm in his grief but wondering what in the world he was supposed to do next. He had come to Daytona with his son, who was only 28, in search of unlikely glory and instead would be going home alone, his family’s future in tatters.

     A.J. Foyt, who then was running occasional NASCAR races, stepped up and arranged for the body to be shipped home to Michigan. In a day suddenly gone crazy, it was one matter suddenly solved for his family.

     We wrote our stories and got ready for the next day at Daytona. As always, the racing went on.
     Ricky Knotts’ death was among the first in the time I have chased NASCAR around the country. Sadly, there would be others, more than you would reasonably expect, some in awful closeness to each other, some involving some of the sport’s grandest names.

     There was no class in journalism school for writing about death. If there had been, they would have said that it is the hardest thing you will ever do and that, regardless of circumstances, it never gets easier. This is true in and out of sport. To write about the aftermath of death following Hurricane Hugo, the devastation of tornadoes striking deep in the night, the madness of Susan Smith or the horrid suddenness of the departures of Alan Kulwicki and Dale Earnhardt is to meet the end of life in its full face.

     The instruction book might say that you do it without tears. It sometimes is wrong.

     As I interviewed Bobby Hamilton last year for a story about his battle with cancer, it was all too clear that, without a miracle of sorts, I also would be writing about his death. And far too soon.

     That hard fact became a reality last week. Hamilton left the NASCAR community at only 49, his life a full one but too short to do everything he wanted to do. Putting his times on newsprint, taking the measure of a man gone too soon, is not everyday work.

     Historians see these matters from the broad, long-range perspective. Journalists live with them from one tragedy to the next.

     It never gets easier.