Almirola doesn’t finish, but wins with Hamlin’s help
WEST ALLIS, Wisc. -- Aric Almirola won the AT&T 250 Busch Series race Saturday night at the Milwaukee Mile and wasn't even around to see it.
Joe Gibbs Racing officials decided to replace Almirola with Denny Hamlin on Lap 59 of the 250-lap race, and after Hamlin made up a lost lap because of the driver change, he charged to the front in the second half to take the checkered flag.
But under NASCAR rules, Almirola is officially the winner because he started the race. NASCAR was checking its records to find out whether that has ever happened in the 26 years of the Busch Series. "Aric, this is your race car," Hamlin said on the team's radio following the race. "I appreciate everything you did."
The last time a scenario like this happened in the Nextel Cup Series was Aug. 7, 1977, when Darrell Waltrip relieved Donnie Allison and won at Talladega.
Hamlin made it exciting on a restart with 15 laps to go. Dropped to fourth under a previous caution because his team changed four tires, Hamlin made a three-wide move under Scott Wimmer and Jason Leffler into Turn 1 on Lap 237.
Hamlin was in charge of the race after getting the lead on Lap 177. He pulled away from the field before Frank Kreyer spun to bring out a caution on Lap 221. Hamlin's team changed four tires, while Wimmer and two others changed two to get out front.
Almirola won the pole for this race for the second straight year but wasn't supposed to start the race. Hamlin was flying from Infineon Raceway in California to race the No. 20 for sponsor Rockwell Automation, which is based in Milwaukee and wanted Hamlin in the car.
But the helicopter carrying Hamlin from the General Mitchell International airport in nearby Milwaukee couldn't land because a makeshift helipad was turned into a parking lot before the race. The helicopter circled the track before heading back to the airport.
Hamlin was whisked to the track with a police escort, but by the time he finally arrived in the infield, the race had started. Hamlin ventured down to Steve Wallace's pit since Wallace wasn't feeling well, and his Rusty Wallace Inc. team was searching for a relief driver.
But Wallace didn't come out of the car, and Hamlin returned to the Gibbs pit. On Lap 59, Almirola was ordered to pit lane, where he was replaced by Hamlin. Almirola retreated to his hauler and eventually ducked out of the garage without comment.
Hamlin got his lap back under the race's fifth caution, restarting 16th with 101 laps to go. But Hamlin's car was hooked up, and with fresh tires, he started through the field and eventually emerged victorious.