Posted: Monday January 8, 2007 4:24PM; Updated: Monday January 8, 2007 4:24PM
Rebuilding that organization was a tall order, but Hamilton, entering his fifth full season on tour, paired up with crew chief Robbie Loomis to get the right attitude and enthusiasm flowing back into the STP Pontiac. Their first season together produced the first top five for the team since '88, and they added three more during the course of the year to finish 14th in the final point standings. By the beginning of '96, Hamilton was in position to win his first race, coming close at Rockingham, Richmond and Martinsville before finally putting together the perfect performance at Phoenix. Leading 40 laps that day in November, Hamilton outran contemporaries Martin and Terry Labonte to score the first win for Petty Enterprises in a dozen years. The beaming smile from Hamilton on that day paled in comparison to that of Petty; his team once left for dead, it had officially made it back on the map despite funding from STP that paled in comparison to what the big, multi-car organizations were beginning to spend at the time.
Hamilton added another win with the team before leaving Petty in '97. His stats with the No. 43 car in three seasons: 2 wins, 13 Top 5s, and 29 Top 10 finishes in 94 starts. Since that time, the organization has only racked up 62 Top 10 finishes among three teams in the last decade. That just goes to show you how much Hamilton meant to that organization, and how much they've missed him after he left.
Talladega, 2001. After leaving Petty, Hamilton spent three seasons with the Morgan-McClure No. 4 team before joining Andy Petree's two-car effort for the 2'01 season. Rocked that year by the death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona, NASCAR went to Talladega that April on eggshells. It was the first restrictor plate race after the death of the Intimidator and it was filled with safety concerns, new rules and fear of tragedy around every turn.
Still, there was a race to be run, and Hamilton would be in it. Driving the No. 55 car with young crew chief Jimmy Elledge, Hamilton was enjoying a good first season with the team, and knew the car was good right from the first practice.
"He wouldn't tell me anything about the car, so I followed him into the truck," said Elledge about that day. "He was changing clothes, and I asked him if we needed to do anything to the car. He said no, and asked me if the race motor was a little better. I told him it had a couple more horsepower, and he said we'd be fine."
As the race unfolded that Sunday, an event many feared would be a single-file parade turned into a fun-filled event where the racing outweighed the risks, helping the community begin to heal in the face of the Earnhardt tragedy. In a rare caution-free performance at the fastest track on the circuit, it was Hamilton who came out the upset winner. He led just three laps, yet held off Tony Stewart in an amazing finish to hit the checkered flag first. Hamilton gave it his all in that race; so much so that in Victory Lane, he needed oxygen immediately after exiting the car. Emotionally and physically exhausted, the veteran still had no problem showing both honesty and spunk, a defining feature of his independent streak that endeared him to so many.
"This is emotional," said Hamilton that day after the win. "The media has been really hard on me with restrictor plate races; they more or less said I suck. I think my confidence was beat down. I've always sucked as a speedway driver so, to win here, the critics can just kiss my tail."
Not surprisingly, the win was the first for Hamilton's car owner, Andy Petree. After five years of owning a team and employing seven different drivers, it was Hamilton who became the magic formula capable of taking his program to Victory Lane.
Leaving Nextel Cup For the Craftsman Truck Series. As the '02 season came to a close, Hamilton saw the writing on the wall with Petree. With the owner now running just one Cup car full-time, the sponsorship money from Square D wasn't enough to keep the team competitive, and continuing on with the program simply meant months on end of running at the back of the pack. That's never where Hamilton wanted to be; 45 at the time, he was still more than capable of taking a high-powered program to Victory Lane, and had several talks of running a car for Chip Ganassi, a ride that eventually went to unheralded Casey Mears. Once that happened, a sure sign of the "young gun" craze taking hold of the sport, Hamilton left Cup racing on his own terms; having established his own Craftsman Truck team a few years earlier, he decided to do that full-time rather than fade into obscurity like several veteran drivers had done before him.
"At this point in my career," Hamilton said at the time. "It's not about a paycheck. If I can't be in a competitive car, I'm not going to race."
Many will say Hamilton's Cup career ended following that '02 season with Petree. They're wrong. Hamilton returned in '05 to register two starts in his own car. With limited sponsorship backing, he not only qualified for the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis but finished 27th -- on the lead lap -- not bad for an underfunded, single-car operation. Enjoying his brief stint back in the series, Hamilton relished his role as the underdog, placing ahead of teams owned by Hendrick, Gibbs, and Penske in that fateful day in Indiana.
That the tough, lovable underdog will never get another chance to prove his mettle is something that will take a long time to come to terms with. A racer at heart, there are several million more hearts out there who spent the day trying to mend themselves back together after a tragedy that came far too soon.
It ain't fair, you died too young, Like the story that had just begun -- Kenny Chesney, Who You'd Be Today