Joe Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs was not able to congratulate winner Aric Almirola following Saturday night’s Busch Series race at The Milwaukee Mile.
You see, Almirola wasn’t there.
Denny Hamlin was, after Almirola was yanked from the Rockwell Automation Chevrolet while leading, in favor of the late-arriving Nextel Cup star.
Hamlin’s late arrival from Infineon Raceway, compounded by a helipad-turned-parking lot at the Milwaukee oval, caused him to miss the start of Saturday’s race. Almirola -- dutiful developmental driver that he is -- strapped into the car he had practiced in and qualified on the pole earlier in the weekend, and led 43 of the first 57 laps before his team (or better stated, Hamlin’s team) ordered him to the pits for a bizarre driver switcheroo. Almirola climbed out – fuming – and Hamlin climbed in, losing a lap in the process. He then battled back to win the race, triggering the oddest Victory Lane “celebration” in NASCAR Busch Series history.
It should be noted that Milwaukee is the hometown of the team’s sponsor, Rockwell Automation. There was plenty of Rockwell brass in attendance at The Mile Saturday night, and every one of them arrived expecting to see Hamlin in the car. Even the Rockwell Automation team weighed-in, voting to have Almirola pulled from the car in favor of Hamlin.
"I told those guys, `If you think Denny can get in the car and win the race, let's go. Let's do that,’" said J.D. Gibbs afterward. "If you don't think he can do that, let Aric run it out. Our guys thought about it and said, 'We think Denny can run well, and we're fast enough to win the race.'
Hamlin, however, was against the move, saying, "I didn't want to do it. I knew he would be really upset. He did all the hard work."
“That was a huge discouragement to Aric," said Gibbs, putting himself in contention for Understatement of the Year honors. "He's upset. I know he's upset. I would be too, if I was in his shoes. At the same time, I think he knows he's like a younger brother. He's like family."
Gibbs left a telephone message for Almirola after the race. As of Sunday morning, it still had not been returned. Almirola will receive the winner's check of $66,823, and will be credited with the win in NASCAR’s record books, since he became the driver of record by taking the green flag. What he will not receive is immunity from the asterisk people will understandably place after his name, knowing he is a Busch Series winner in name only.
Saturday night's race marked the first time a relief driver had won a Busch Series race since Harry Gant won in relief of Jack Ingram at Darlington Raceway in April of 1985.
"I've known (Aric) for over four years,” said Gibbs. “I know his family, and I know how much this means to them. He's a huge part of our future. We've invested a lot in him, time-wise and financially, and no one wants to see him succeed more than we do."
Just not Saturday night, apparently.