- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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If Bobby Hamilton Jr. strikes a blow for the little guys in Saturday's Busch Series race at Nashville Superspeedway (ESPN2, 3 p.m. ET), it'll be meaningful for the Tennessee native on a number of levels.
"It's your home track. Your family is there and people who have watched you run at local races come there to watch you," Hamilton said. "It's a home track. I think that if you could win there it would be bigger than winning Daytona or something like that. It would be one of the biggest wins of my career that would stick out forever."
Beyond the obvious, it's been a year to forget thus far for Hamilton.
Losing his father -- 2004 Craftsman Truck Series champion Bobby Hamilton Sr. -- to head and neck cancer in January understandably got the year off to a tough start.
The passing left Hamilton Jr. and his daughter, along with Hamilton Sr.'s widow (Hamilton Jr.'s stepmother), as the owners of BHR, the two-truck team the elder Hamilton built from the ground up.
The thing is, Hamilton Jr. would prefer to sell his interest in the team. At this point, his focus is on returning to prominence as a driver, a position that's been missing since 2004.
A five-time winner in the Busch Series, Hamilton Jr. is back with Team Rensi Motorsports this year, hoping to find the magic that saw him earn four wins in 2003. The last few years have been an epic struggle as he's bounced from the Nextel Cup ranks to the Craftsman Truck Series, where he spent most of last year driving his father's truck as Hamilton Sr. underwent treatments for the cancer that eventually claimed his life.
This year, Hamilton Jr.'s goal is to return to Victory Lane, but things haven't gone very well thus far. Sure, he sits 10th in points through six races, but that's largely because a number of the Cup drivers who have dominated the series haven't run the entire schedule.
He's yet to finish higher than 14th, but if his spirits are broken, he's doing a good job of hiding it.
"I'm enjoying myself. I'm away from the pressure of BHR. I'm away from anything like that, and all I can do is concentrate on my Busch car and do what I used to do, and that was win races and walk in there," Hamilton Jr. said. "I know I get criticized a lot of times for being cocky or whatever, but it's nice. It's just a mental thing as far as being confident.
"I know I'm good at what I do, I have good equipment behind me and I want to win races, and I'm going to win races. I'm sorry if a lot of people don't like that, but I think that's just how somebody gets focused, and I'm on that mission.
"I know what's ahead of me and right now -- nothing towards nobody in front of me -- but it's easy pickings right now, and I want them. I want the spot they're in, I want to take their trophies, I want to take their wins and I want to do everything that we used to do. I've done it before and I'm a smarter driver. I think our team is better than it used to be before I even left. All kinds of things are pointing in the direction of good, so I might as well jump on the pony and make it work for me."
Truth be told, though, it's likely going to be easier said than done. Sure, Team Rensi fields two cars, but as an independent Busch team, it's a struggle to keep up with the amount of money Cup-affiliated Busch teams spend on research and development. And the Cup drivers benefit from additional seat time, as they're often finishing up their final Cup practice session an hour or so before the start of the Busch race.
Having been a Cup driver himself, Hamilton Jr. understands why drivers run both. But since he last drove a Busch car in 2004, things have changed, and the plight of the pure Busch teams has grown that much harder.
That doesn't mean he's throwing in the towel or is content to run for 10th place, however.
"It's a big disadvantage on several things, but you've got what you've got, and all that you can do is be the top-running Busch car every week, as far as a normal Busch guy," he said. "If you are that, then you can start working on other stuff as far as learning how to beat those guys. It's not the intimidation factor. I don't care who they are. In that race car we're all the same size and weigh the same.
"It's like we used to be in '04. We got to being where we were the best Busch car every week, and then all of a sudden we went to being, 'OK, what do we need to do to start kicking Kevin Harvick's butt? What do we need to do to start kicking Carl Edwards' butt or Greg Biffle's butt?' That's what we're doing now. We're slowly but surely trying to be the best Busch car, and when we do that we'll progress to B and go after those guys from there."
With three top-5 finishes and five top-5 starting positions in seven Busch races at Nashville, this is obviously a weekend when Hamilton Jr. could shine. The thing is, he'll be sharing the spotlight with teammate Richard Johns, who will be making his debut in the series.
Johns started with Team Rensi as an intern while at UNC-Charlotte and upon graduation became the team's head engineer. But for 11 races this season, he'll get to be the one driving the car instead of the one calling the shots.
"As a kid, I used to take out my [toy] cars on the carpet and pretend that I was driving in a NASCAR race," Johns said. "I'd imagine that I won the race and would act like I was being interviewed in Victory Lane. I'd pretend that Ned Jarrett was talking to me and asking me about the win as I was celebrating with the team."
If a Team Rensi driver is celebrating at the end of the Pepsi 300, it'll likely be Hamilton Jr. given his track record and Johns' inexperience.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
Bobby Hamilton Jr. is hoping he can strike a blow for the "little guys" in the Busch Series at Nashville in front of his home fans, writes Mark Ashenfelter.