Tardy Hamlin Still Takes Checkered Flag

Sunday, June 24th 2007, 2:33 pm
By: News On 6

WEST ALLIS, Wis. (AP) _ Denny Hamlin proved you don't necessarily have to be around for the green flag to take the checkered flag. And Aric Almirola sulked away from what will go down in the record books as his first career NASCAR Busch Series victory.

After missing the start of the race because his helicopter couldn't find a place to land, Hamlin rallied to take the checkered flag in a wacky AT&T 250 at the Milwaukee Mile on Saturday.

But because Almirola, a substitute driver, started the race in Hamlin's car, NASCAR officially will credit Almirola with the victory, points and prize money.

In Victory Lane, Hamlin said it wasn't his decision to kick Almirola out of the car.

``I didn't want to do it,'' Hamlin said. ``I knew he would be really upset.''

According to NASCAR officials, it was the first time a relief driver had won a race a Busch series race since Jack Ingram turned his car over to Harry Gant at Darlington Raceway on April 13, 1985.

Hamlin went out of his way to credit the young driver he helped discover for Joe Gibbs Racing.

``He did all the hard work,'' Hamlin said.

But that will likely be of little comfort to Almirola, who shook his head as he retreated to the team's transporter after being ordered to hand the car over to Hamlin. Almirola refused interview requests and later sneaked out a side entrance to leave the track without comment.

``I can't help but feel sorry for him,'' said Gibbs teammate Brad Coleman, who finished fourth.

Hamlin, one of a handful of drivers splitting time between the Nextel Cup race in Sonoma, Calif., and the Busch race in Milwaukee this weekend, arrived late to the racetrack and took the wheel from Almirola during an early pit stop.

Hamlin steadily sliced through traffic throughout the race and finally took the lead with 78 laps to go _ then saw one of his biggest competitors fall out of contention seconds later when Busch Series points leader Carl Edwards pulled off for an unscheduled pit stop to change an apparent flat tire.

Hamlin was shuffled back to fourth on the final round of pit stops, giving Scott Wimmer the race lead. But Hamlin charged back into the lead on an aggressive move with 13 laps to go, squeezing past both Wimmer and Jason Leffler in Turn 1.

``Denny set us up like a couple of bowling pins and drove right by us,'' Leffler said.

Wimmer finished second and Leffler finished third. Both seemed perplexed by the No. 20 team's decision to take Almirola out of the car.

``I was surprised they did it, because Aric was running a good race,'' Wimmer said.

Hamlin's day got off to a bad start in Sonoma, as he misread a practice schedule and figured he didn't need to show up for the first practice at Infineon Raceway until noon.

``That's Eastern, not Pacific,'' Hamlin said.

Hamlin stuck around for the final Cup practice, knowing he was cutting it close to fly halfway across the country to make the start of the Busch race. Meanwhile, the No. 20 team had Almirola qualify Hamlin's car _ and he put it on the pole, just as he did for Hamlin at Milwaukee last year.

Hamlin made it to Milwaukee with time to spare, but the helicopter carrying him from the airport to the racetrack wasn't allowed to land because the track's helipad was blocked by parked cars. They tried to land on the racetrack itself, only to be waved off at the last minute.

``When we started to descend down to the track, they said, 'No, you can't,''' Hamlin said.

Hamlin had to chopper back to the airport and drive into the track, and didn't arrive until after the race had started. The team allowed Almirola to continue driving, and he held the lead until Edwards passed him on lap 44.

Almirola continued to run with the leaders, providing a potential career boost for the 23-year-old driver. But when Ron Hornaday Jr. crashed on lap 57 to bring out a caution, the No. 20 team called Almirola into the pits and had him step out of the car so Hamlin could take over.

Was it simply a case of Hamlin's sponsor, Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation, wanting to see its star driver take a turn behind the wheel?

``That might have had something to do with it,'' Coleman said.

Edwards recovered from the flat tire to finish eighth. He leaves Milwaukee with a dominant 776-point lead over David Reutimann the Busch Series standings.

Edwards had some travel misadventures of his own, as he literally hit the ground running once he arrived from Sonoma. Edwards had to sprint through the garage area past bewildered race fans so he could make it to his car in time to qualify.

``There's no way to look cool and run your (tail) off,'' Edwards said.

Edwards started his car with about a minute to spare before he would have lost his qualifying turn, then qualified ninth.

``One minute later, we wouldn't have made it,'' Edwards said.

Edwards, Hamlin and David Ragan all are expected to return to Sonoma in time for Sunday's Cup race.