For the first time in twenty-two years, a driver won a NASCAR Busch Series race in relief of another driver. Denny Hamlin stepped into the number 20 car 70 laps into the race, replacing Aric Almirola. Hamlin raced his way to the win that will go down in the record books as Almirola's first career NASCAR Busch Series win.
Hamlin could not start the race when the green flag initially fell because the helicopter that carried him to Milwaukee from Sonoma, California, the site of this week's Nextel Cup race, could not find a place to land during prerace festivities.
After the race, Hamlin explained it was not his decision to kick Almirola out of the car.
"I didn't want to do it," he said. "I knew he would be really upset."
Hamlin also gave credit to the young Almirola, who qualified the car earlier on in the day, saying he did "all the hard work".
Almirola was clearly upset after being ordered to come to the pits to turn the car over to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. He shook his head in disappointment as he headed back to the team's motor coach. He left the track without comment.
Hamlin took the lead with 78 laps to go. A few laps later, his biggest competition, points leader, Carl Edwards fell out contention with a blown tire. Hamlin was shuffled around in the top five through a series of late race cautions. Scott Wimmer even took the lead during the final round of pit stops. But Hamlin would not be denied. With 13 laps to go, he made a power move, going three wide into turn 2 to re-take the lead. From there, he was home free.
"Denny set us up like a couple of bowling pins and drove right by us," said Jason Leffler.
Both Wimmer and Leffler, who finished second and third, were puzzled by the 20 team's decision to replace Almirola with Hamlin.
"I was surprised they did it, because Aric was running a good race," Wimmer said.
At the time, the team briefly said they made the change for their sponsor, Rockwell Automation. Perhaps the team wanted to have their star driver behind the wheel?
"That might have had something to do with it," said fourth place finisher and Joe Gibbs Racing teammte, Brad Coleman.
Edwards was able to recover from his flat tire pretty nicely. He got his lap back under the last caution and was able to come home with another top 10 finish.
Like Hamlin, Edwards had a few misadventures of his own on Saturday. Edwards landed at the Milwaukee Mile just minutes before qualifying began. His Roush-Fenway Racing teammate, Travis Kvapil was already strapped into the seat of the number 60 Dish Network Ford Fusion. While Edwards sprinted from the garage area to the grid, Kvapil unstrapped himself. When Edwards arrived, Kvapil helped him strap in. Edwards hit the track with less than a minute left on his five minute clock.
"There's no way to look cool and run your (tail) off," Edwards said. "One minute later, we wouldn't have made it."
Hamlin, Edwards and David Ragan are all expected to return to Sonoma tonight and compete in tomorrow's Cup race.