Saturday in Milwaukee in the Busch Series race saw something that has never been seen in the Bush Series before, a car in victory lane with two winners.
Denny Hamlin has been driving the number 20 car in the Busch Series this year, but with the Cup Series racing in Sonoma California this was always going to be a difficult weekend to make racing in both series work. Several racers, including Carl Edwards were attempting to do the double, and after a quick plane ride across the country, and a slower than he wanted ride in a golf cart, Carl just managed to get into his car for qualifying, with 2 minutes of the allotted 5 minute grace period left. Denny however chose to stay at Sonoma a little longer than Carl to try to sort out some problems he had with his cup car, and so missed qualifying in Milwaukee.
Subbing for him was the very capable Aric Almirola, a current truck series regular, and occasional Busch Series driver, one of the bright rising stars in NASCAR land. Aric did his job perfectly, grasping the chance of getting into a top line car, and putting it on pole position, a fantastic job, outrunning even runaway 07 series leader Carl Edwards.
The plan at that time was for Denny to fly in and start the race, however delays during the flight, plus his helicopter not being able to land at the track helipad due to cars being parked on it, meant that Denny did not make the start of the race, and Aric was in the car. Aric made a solid start, staying in the top three easily. Denny meanwhile was called on by the 66 team as Steve Wallace was not feeling well, and Denny was ready to jump into that car, but he never got there.
For whatever reason, and the team has not really commented on the exact reasons for the change, Denny was then told he was to get into the 20 car during the next caution, bringing the great run for Aric to a halt. At the next caution the driver change was made, and a clearly upset Almirola stormed away from the pit. It took Denny so long to get into the car with all the adjustments that had to be made, that he lost a complete lap, and had to work overtime to work his way into the position to get the "Lucky Dog" free pass to get back on the lead lap. He did do that, and despite a long green run, did get his lap back. Back on the lead lap he then stormed through the field, passing cars wherever and whenever he could, finally taking the lead back towards the end of the race, a lead he held on to for the win.
A fairytale ending, yes, perhaps, but probably an ending Aric Almirola could have duplicated without Dennys help, should he have been left in the car. The 20 car, along with the 60 of Carl Edwards were the class of the field, and I am sure Aric would have done it justice. The only explanation given for the turn of events was that this was the home of team sponsor Rockwell Automation, and that Rockwell Automation are the sponsors of Denny Hamlin.
In these days of mega dollar sponsorships this is probably a valid excuse to do this sort of thing. Denny Hamlin for his part could have refused to get in the car, but then, he is paid to drive, and is paid to do what the sponsors and team want him to do, so really there can be no blame bought upon Denny. As for Aric, he knew he was a sub for Denny, in Denny’s car. He did exactly what was asked of him, he drove the car flawlessly, put it on pole, and ran at the front during his stint in the car, handing it over in a comfortable 3rd place. No-one could ask anything more of Aric, yes he can be upset, but his stocks in NASCAR circles will have gone up after that event, everyone, including the media and team personnel were talking about this over the weekend, so apart from being upset about being pulled form the car, if Aric manages this event properly it could be the key for him to advance his career, after all a single win was the launchpad for the career of David Gilliand, now the driver of the 38 cup car, last year. After all, being talked about in any media is great, but Aric had the media to himself on this one, and even gets credited with his first Busch Series win. Not bad for a short days work!