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Remembering a champion

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There oftentimes is an irony in the way you remember someone who has passed away.

As you try to put their lives, careers and accomplishments in perspective, something that is far removed from the way you normally saw them becomes your favorite or most telling memory of who that person truly was.

Such is my recollection of Bobby Hamilton, who died Sunday, less than a year after shocking the NASCAR world with the announcement that he had head and neck cancer. Hamilton bravely vowed to beat that despicable disease, but it was a race that he could not win, ultimately leaving this earth at the far-too-young age of 49.

It was December 2004 in New York City and I was seated next to Bobby and his wife during a dinner honoring NASCAR's non-Nextel Cup level champions of that season. I had interviewed Bobby several times over the years, but that particular night I saw him in a light that will forever leave a smile on my face whenever I think of him.

After nearly 20 years of racing on the Nextel Cup, Busch and Craftsman Trucks circuits, Bobby was finally at peace with himself, NASCAR and his world, displaying a humble satisfaction that belied his oftentimes cocky and cantankerous persona. He had achieved the shining moment of his career, winning the Craftsman Truck Series championship.

It may not have been the Nextel Cup title he so greatly coveted, but knowing he was the best of the best in the trucks left Hamilton at ease and in perhaps the funniest and most personable state I've ever seen him in.

He was both relaxed and charming, telling humorous stories, spouting off great one-liners and just soaking in the atmosphere. History would finally be able to call him what many already considered him to be even before he won the truck title: a true champion.

He was doing everything he could do to enjoy the moment, but in typical fashion, Bobby was also quick to realize how fragile that achievement could be.

"You have to enjoy it now because you never know if you're ever going to get another chance to be a champion again in your life," I recall him telling me that night. "Some guys never win a championship, so you have to enjoy what you've achieved, take pride in it and hope it isn't going to be the only one you'll ever get."

Unfortunately, cancer ultimately would see to it that one championship would be the only one Hamilton would win in NASCAR.

The way Hamilton was that night, enjoying the accolades for a job well done and a payoff for all the hard work and effort he had put in to win the trucks title was in direct contrast to the way many people perceived him: the grizzled veteran with a reputation of being more like the ornery Dale Earnhardt than the smiling, nice-guy Carl Edwards type.

There's no question Hamilton was an acquired taste for some. He'd oftentimes be more crabby and cranky than congenial and conciliatory, much like his long-time friend Earnhardt. Sometimes you'd swear the late Intimidator and the silver-haired Nashville native were cut from the same hot and cold personality mold.

But that all was part of their charm as both competitors and human beings.

Hamilton, Earnhardt and others of their ilk simply were who they were: old-school racers who were taught from an early age to never take crap from nor easily give in to opponents on a race track.

You could be friends and drinking buddies away from places like Daytona or Talladega, but when you were on a track, there was no love for your fellow driver.

"When you put on that helmet and climb behind the wheel of that race car, no one is your friend out there on the track," Hamilton once told me.

Why, even in those few instances he competed in the same race with son Bobby Hamilton Jr., there was no father-son congeniality. It was every man for himself, blood relations or not.

Hamilton, who would have turned 50 on May 29, lived life gregariously and by his own rules, even if doing so occasionally put him at odds with NASCAR and his fellow competitors. But ultimately, Hamilton respected NASCAR and his peers, and they respected him right back.

The racing world is much better off today because it had Hamilton in it for as long as it did. But that same world is now a bit smaller and less colorful without Hamilton.

As time goes on, NASCAR will continue to lose even more of those old-school drivers who helped make it what it is today, hard-edged guys like Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, among others, leaving us with even fewer links to the sport's colorful past.

That past is something NASCAR, its fans and anyone associated should never forget, nor should they ever forget Hamilton for his achievements and contributions.

He may have been a bit rough at times, but deep down he was a good person, a champion, that did not deserve to take his final ride at such a young age.