"We first started noticing Bobby when we had an ARCA team and were running at Charlotte," Rensi says. "Adam Petty won that race, and we finished Second with Mike Wallace. Bobby finished Third, right behind us. We knew that he was a pretty good race car driver, and the question then became, Could he handle the sponsors? Could he handle the media attention and things like that?

"We paid closer attention to him for a couple years when he was driving Dave Carroll's Dr. Pepper cars in the Busch Series. He was about 22 years old at the time, and you could tell he was a wheelman. He was very smooth, very precise.

"We were a little bit troubled when he was driving that Dr. Pepper No. 26 car, because he could qualify like crazy, but by the end of the race he was back in 20th or someplace. We could never figure out exactly what was going on, whether it was him, the car, or what. Finally, we figured out the car was just used up after the first couple of laps on new tires. He still did a remarkable job.

"So we started listening to him on the radio to see what he was saying to his crewchief and things like that."

The puzzle took shape.

"The longer we went on, we could see he was just a raw talent and his dad had raised him right," Rensi continues. "Bobby's like a sponge: We teach him something, he learns it, and sticks with it. And he's a wheelman. He's very smooth on the throttle, smooth on the steering wheel. He gets into rhythm and he's tough to beat."

Another group of pretty tough guys-the Marines-joined the team as sponsor three years ago.

While on-track toughness may define Hamilton, his toughest moment in racing came when he wasn't even on the track. It was a loss shared by race fans everywhere-Adam Petty's fatal crash during practice for a Busch race at New Hampshire.

"Me and him were really, really close and spent a lot of time together," says Hamilton. "And then the deal with Earnhardt. That hit both sides of the fence as a family. I couldn't tell you what it was like to lose a child, but I could tell you what it would be like to lose my dad, and I don't want to go through that."

Adam Petty, May 12, 2000. "I remember it like it was yesterday," Hamilton says somberly. "I was done with practice and I ran up to the top [of the hauler]. I followed him right into the corner, seen the smoke and boom, the hit. I just figured it was another hit and nothing big. I kept hearing the rumors, but that stuff didn't happen, it ain't supposed to happen, and it wasn't going to happen.

"When we really heard it, it hit very hard that night. I was there by myself; my dad was running somewhere else. There in the motel, I didn't know what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to go home or go back racing."

He went racing, with a sorrowful heart. Hamilton Jr.'s proudest moment came at the end of 2003, when he finished Third (Fourth in points) and his father won the Truck race at Homestead. "I couldn't ask for a better day," he says.

While Hamilton appears personable and easy-going, his assessment of himself is a bit more harsh.

"As a person, I think I'm moody," he says. "I'm real competitive. I don't like--even in video games or paint ball--to lose. If I can't win, I ain't playing, and so I keep working until I can win.

"I'm moody, but I also like helping people and seeing their face if I give them something special or go out of my way. I don't like getting gifts; I like to give more than receive."

Hamilton says when those moody times come, Stephanie, his wife of two years, serves as his personal restrictor plate.

"She takes it and will even dish it right back and tell me the way it needs to be," Hamilton says flatly. "You know, 'This is what I would do if I were you!' She's in charge of the company, handles all the business, and I couldn't ask for anything better."