This evening, the Camping World Truck Series makes its 13th stop at the Atlanta Motor Speedway for the 130-lap Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 200. The track has been scene to some of the series' best duels and wildest finishes. Six of the 12 previous events have been won by Sprint Cup drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Newman, while the other six have been split up among former or eventual champions of the NCWTS.
Eight years ago this past March, the circuit headed to Atlanta for its inaugural event at the track. In a wild finish that further solidified Atlanta's place as one of NASCAR's premier action tracks, the leaders bumped as they raced off the last turn. Mike Skinner, the first champion in the series history, went for a wild slide through the front-stretch grass that left him a disappointing second.
Winning the EasyCare 200, meanwhile, was a tough customer from Nashville who, it seemed, fought his whole life right up to the end.
Bobby Hamilton epitomized the era of short track aces that, unfortunately, had mostly gone by the time he made it to NASCAR. He was a track champion at the historic Fairgrounds Speedway in his hometown, a track where such legends as Darrell Waltrip cut their teeth. In 1988, Hamilton beat Waltrip, along with fellow Nashville graduate Sterling Marlin and eventual Winston Cup champion Bill Elliott in a four-car "Superstar Showdown" at the track.
The next year, Hamilton got his big break when Waltrip recommended him to his owner, Rick Hendrick. Hendrick was serving as an adviser and providing cars for the production of the stock car racing blockbuster "Days of Thunder," and Hamilton joined another of Hendrick's drivers, Greg Sacks, and Busch Grand National (now Nationwide) legend Tommy Ellis to drive the cars in the movie. Hamilton's ride was the No. 51 Exxon Chevrolet driven by the film's early antagonist, Rowdy Burns (portrayed by actor Michael Rooker).
In 1991, Hamilton began a 12-year career in NASCAR's top division that saw him largely overachieve in equipment that just couldn't match the powerhouses of the sport. In 1996, drove Richard Petty's No. 43 to victory lane at Phoenix for his first triumph and the first win for the Petty team since 1983 (The King's final two wins in 1984 were scored for Mike Curb).
Hamilton won once more for Petty at Rockingham the following year before departing for Morgan-McClure Motorsports. He claimed on win in the once-magnificent Kodak Chevrolet, at Martinsville in April 1998. In 2001, he scored perhaps the biggest win of his career when he drove Andy Petree's Chevrolet to victory in a caution-free 500-mile thriller at Talladega.
Two years later, Hamilton moved to the Truck Series and became a force almost instantly, winning his second start as a full-time driver. In 2004, a four-win campaign highlighted by his duel with Skinner at Atlanta netted his first championship in a major series.
Hamilton won once more in 2005, including the season-opening race at Daytona, but fell to sixth in points. His 2006 campaign opened with two less than stellar finishes, 21st at Daytona, 23rd at Fontana.
On March 18, 2006, two years and four days removed from his thrilling victory, Hamilton announced to the reporters gathered in the Atlanta Media Center that he was battling head and neck cancer, which had been diagnosed in the offseason. As he spoke, the racer implored the media to never refer to him as a "cancer victim." That evening, he strapped into a racing vehicle for the last time and recorded a 14th-place finish.
On Sunday, January 7, 2007, Charles Robert Hamilton died at the age of 49, leaving a grieving family and a legion of heartbroken race fans who the tenacious bulldog attitude he acquired growing up on the tough streets of Nashville and carried with him to the pinnacle of motorsports.
It is fitting that during this weekend's activities at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, the Atlanta Head and Neck Cancer coalition will be giving free cancer screenings in the track's Fan Zone. Visit their facebook page for more information.
Bobby Hamilton didn't want to be known as a victim of the disease he fought to the end. Rather, he wanted to be remembered as a survivor, a winner. With that in mind, in closing, here is a video of the final lap of the 2004 EasyCare 200, one of his finest moments at the wheel of a race car.