Hamilton, longtime NASCAR driver, dies at 49

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Bobby Hamilton, the longtime NASCAR
driver who won the 2001 Talladega 500 and was the 2004 Craftsman
Truck Series champion, died Sunday of cancer, said Liz Allison, a
family friend who co-hosted a radio show with Hamilton. He was 49.

Hamilton was at home with his family when he died, said Allison,
the widow of former NASCAR star Davey Allison.

"The thing I loved about Bobby Sr. so much is that he treated
everybody the same," Allison said. "It didn't matter if you were
one of the drivers he competed against or a fan he'd never laid
eyes on before.

"He didn't have a pretentious bone in his body. I think that's
why people were drawn to him. He was just very real and had a way
of relating to everyone."

Hamilton was diagnosed with head and neck cancer in February. A
malignant growth was found when swelling from dental surgery did
not go down.

"NASCAR is saddened by the passing of Bobby Hamilton," said
Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of communications. "Bobby was
a great competitor, dedicated team owner and friend. Our thoughts
and prayers go out to all of the Hamilton family."

Hamilton raced in the first three truck races of the season,
with a best finish of 14th at Atlanta Motor Speedway, before
turning over the wheel to his son, Bobby Hamilton Jr. The senior
Hamilton then started chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

By August, he had returned to work at Bobby Hamilton Racing in
Mount Juliet, about 20 miles east of Nashville, and doctors
indicated his CAT scans looked good. But microscopic cancer cells
remained on the right side of his neck.

"Cancer is an ongoing battle, and once you are diagnosed you
always live with the thought of the disease in your body,"
Hamilton said in an article posted on NASCAR's Web site last month.
"It is the worst thing you could ever imagine."

Hamilton, born in Nashville in 1957, drove in all of NASCAR's
top three divisions, making 371 starts and winning four times in
what is now the Nextel Cup series. He won 10 truck races and one
Busch Series race.

"I love what I do; I love this business," he said in March
2006 when he disclosed that he had cancer. "NASCAR has been good
to me, and I just don't feel comfortable when I am not around it."

Hamilton's Nextel Cup wins, in addition to Talladega, came at
Phoenix, Rockingham and Martinsville. His best season was in 1996
when he finished ninth in the points standings. He won his first
Cup race that year, at Phoenix.

Hamilton drove in the top-level NASCAR series from 1989-05,
earning $14.3 million and racing to 20 top-five finishes.

He became a full-time driver-owner in the truck series in 2003.

The news of Hamilton's death caught friends by surprise.

"You could always count on Bobby," seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty said in a statement. "He was just that type of guy. He never let you down and gave you everything he had on-and-off the track. His family is in our hearts and prayers."

Nextel Cup driver Sterling Marlin, a fellow Tennessee native, said a lot
of people didn't know Hamilton well even though he was generous
enough to give someone the shirt off his back.

"He always had a good vision," Marlin said in Daytona where
testing begins Monday. "He always wanted to do things his own way,
so he became his own boss, got into the trucks, and it worked out
well for him."

According to The Tennessean, a public visitation will be held Tuesday from 5-8 p.m. at Hermitage Memorial Gardens in Nashville, Tenn. Private funeral services will be conducted Wednesday.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Victory Junction Gang Camp or the American Cancer Society.

Another NASCAR favorite, 1973 Winston Cup champion Benny
Parsons, was diagnosed with cancer in his left lung in July. He was
checked into intensive care last week at a North Carolina hospital.

In addition to Bobby Jr., Hamilton is survived by wife Lori and
a granddaughter.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.