Hamilton Gets Squared Away

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ROCKINGHAM, N.C. – There was a time earlier in the year when Bobby Hamilton was in the Top 10 in the NASCAR Winston Cup points standings. Heck, there was one week where he was fourth, for goodness sakes.

There he was, nine races into the season, sitting fourth in the Winston Cup standings, with a victory at Talladega and four other top-10 finishes to his credit.

But a not-so-funny thing happened sometime in May. It was almost like Hamilton and his Andy Petree Racing team forgot how to run well. There were some ugly finishes, like a 38th at the Pepsi 400 in Daytona, a 33rd at the first Pocono race, a 30th at Chicagoland Speedway.

Yuck.

After the second Bristol race, Hamilton had fallen all the way to 20th in the points. The free-fall lasted nearly four months, and communication suffered. That can be the death knell of a race team.

“Somewhere in the middle of the season we seemed to lose something, and our finishes showed it,” Hamilton said. “Andy, (crew chief) Jimmy (Elledge) and I sat down and discussed how we could be better and did whatever it took to make it work.”

Whatever they did has seemed to work. Since Bristol, Hamilton has finished in the Top 15 in six of eight races. Included is a fifth-place finish at Talladega and a 10th at Dover. He’s gained three spots back in the points standings, and he’s not too far from 16th or 15th.

“Our finishes got better and the team got the morale booster they needed,” Hamilton said. “Our engine program stepped up to the plate. Everyone, including myself, started looking at ways they could make this Chevy go faster. It’s made the difference.”

And it helped that at Dover in September the team announced its sponsor would be back for 2002. That took a load off everyone’s mind.

“We have been strong week-in and week-out lately,” Hamilton said. “We’ll try our best to put the Chevy in victory lane again before this season’s over. We’ve come close a couple of times, but we’ll get there again – it’s just a matter of time.”

It could happen this weekend at North Carolina Speedway in the Pop Secret 400. Qualifying is scheduled for 3:05 p.m. (ET) today, with the race set for Sunday at 1 p.m.

Hamilton and Elledge, perhaps demonstrating their communication is what they claim it to be, met Tuesday to talk about setups for the 1.017-mile track.

“I walked into the shop and Jimmy handed me the qualifying setup sheet,” Hamilton said. “I looked at him like he was crazy. I mean, a driver making his own setup for a race? We sat down and talked about the last time we were there and how we could capitalize on our performance this time.”

Hamilton finished 13th at Rockingham in the spring, but he’s got a good record there otherwise. He won this race four years ago in Richard Petty’s No. 43, and has six Top 10s in his last nine races.

“I’ve won in Rockingham before, and just like any of these other 42 drivers, I’d love to win again,” Hamilton said. “Racing there will try anyone’s patience. It gets so slick. The whole time we’re racing, we’re thinking about preserving the tires. You have to drive the track, not other drivers.”

Rockingham is notoriously abusive of tires, so patience is a key.

“If there are a lot of green flag runs and you’re losing time to the leaders, you can force their hand to pit,” Elledge said. “They can’t afford for you to be out there with newer tires for 10 laps longer then they are because you can make up so much ground. You really have to think about the race track, the strategy and everything about it.”

Racing has really become a thinking man’s game these days. You can’t simply get in a car and mash the gas. There are a lot more things that make a successful team, like communication.

And Hamilton wants to make his team successful.

“We agreed that we’ve come a long way this year,” Hamilton said. “At the start of the season we had goals in mind. Some we’ve made and others we haven’t. If we didn’t make a goal, we didn’t give up. If anything, it only made us stronger.”

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