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Mourning the loss of Pete Hamilton, a pioneer for New England drivers

Pete Hamilton and the Plymouth Superbird proved to be a great match in 1970. Dozier Mobley/Getty Images

In my travels -- when I meet someone for the first time, and the conversation lasts long enough to get personal -- the one question that always seems to gets asked, "How did a Maine boy become interested in NASCAR?"

The short answer is my dad raced at a track in Bangor called Speedway 95. My earliest memories are sitting in the grandstands watching "Crafty Craven," as he was called, whistle around the flat one-third mile oval.

The longer version of the answer is this: For my entire life, I have been dominated by the sound, smell, and action associated with race cars. There is nothing I've experienced that can replicate being behind the steering wheel of a high-powered machine, against 39 others, attempting lap after lap to get more out of your car than they can get out of theirs.

I won my first stock car race at the age of 15. Bobby Allison was a guest at the Unity Raceway track in the middle of my home state, and when he acknowledged me, congratulated me, and passed me the Gatorade hat he was wearing that evening, I knew without any doubt I wanted to be him.

Every aspiring race-car driver has someone who inspires them. I had many. I mentioned Mr. Allison, but Richard Petty was my all-time hero. I was glued to the television as a child anytime one of the three major networks would carry a glimpse of 1970s Cup racing. Petty won more than any other, and he won or lost with grace and dignity.

But there were a couple other drivers who had an equal amount of influence on me climbing the ladder and one day joining them as NASCAR Cup winners.

They were Pete Hamilton and Ron Bouchard, both from New England, both successful on tracks back home, tracks I could associate with, tracks I won at.

To date, there are only 186 drivers who've won at NASCAR's highest level. Among them are four New Englanders, and we are a fraternity! It's a "New England thing." If you were born in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut or Rhode Island you are most likely linked for life.

That means a portion of your life is consumed by the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, etc. If you're a NASCAR fan, Pete, Ron, Joey Logano or I were -- or are in the case of Joey -- drivers you supported. Even though we may not be your favorites, we are New England boys, regardless of which state we are born in; we maintain allegiance for our own. Our NFL team, you may have heard of them, serves as the most obvious example. It's not a Boston thing, It's a New England thing!

Logano was my preseason pick to win the 2017 title, because I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt it's time, and he has all the tools as well as experience. That's the ESPN analyst speaking. On the personal side, I've always pulled for the kid while not always agreeing with him. But we share a bond, a bond that means a great deal to me.

This week I was deeply saddened by the loss of our earliest New England ambassador to Victory Lane, Hamilton. Pete won the 1970 Daytona 500 along with three other NASCAR Cup points paying events.

Two words I would use to describe Pete: Genuine and sincere -- to the core. Those are the words I shared with Logano this week when I reached out to be certain he knew we had lost our friend. Joey referred to him as a "pioneer to New England auto racing" which made my eyes mist a bit, because it confirmed to me that Joey knows and understands what Pete and Ron did for us in blazing a trail south and helping chart our course to success.

Joey also mentioned how he wished he had had more time to get to know Pete Hamilton, something that's echoed in my thoughts for the past few days.

The little bit of time I spent with Pete was rewarding. He always greeted my like a family member and talked to me as though he was my uncle. (Kyle Petty began trying to convince me 25 years ago he was my dad.) My friend Ryan McGee has always campaigned for this, like Kyle. Hamilton and I have a similar appearance, and, I hope, a similar personality. Pete Hamilton was the type person people enjoyed being with.

I will miss Pete, as I have missed Ron since losing him too soon, roughly 18 months ago. Etched in my memory will be the influence these two great men had on me, the desire to compete, the passion to win, the pride to do things the right way.

I often said during my driving career that those who supported me back home are the people who pulled lobster traps in cold Atlantic waters and cut timber from sunup to sundown. They were people who punched in early and left late, giving everything they had while on the clock. That's how I was raised, that's who I am and that's what I always saw in Pete Hamilton, Ron Bouchard, and now Joey Logano.

I believe what I just described exists for all drivers. You are synonymous with the place you were born and the people from there. There is a pride in most of us when we connect or make friendships with people who grew up in the same place as you. You understand the culture, the difficulty, the struggle and the reward. It bonds us together. And for me, it's a "New England thing."