Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Monday June 25, 2007
Saturday night was the best of times and the worst of times for a couple of drivers attempting to take part in the Busch Series race in Milwaukee. Denny Hamlin was scheduled to run both the Nextel Cup race at Sonoma as well as the Busch Series event in the No. 20 Rockwell Automation Monte Carlo, just minutes away from the company’s corporate headquarters. When he didn’t start the race, however, it appeared his traveling road show 2,000 miles across the country would appear to go for naught. Starting the race from the pole, Aric Almirola wasted no time bringing the No. 20 up to the front of the pack, exactly where it belonged regardless of when – or if – Denny came back.
Problem was, he eventually did.
And that’s where Rockwell stepped up and made a decision that left us all in awe. In its wake, there are more questions than answers about a sponsor who switched drivers in literally midstream, going to the lengths of taking a competitive risk with their team’s finish in order to see a different driver in their car. However, it was a horrific case of forcing someone’s hand while holding the checkbook, meaning the ramifications of that sole decision may ruin the sport of women and minorities here for years to come.
First off, let’s understand how the decision came about. Traveling back and forth put Hamlin in a bind, making it impossible for him to do everything; the distance between the two tracks would make practicing and qualifying both impossible. In his stead, Tampa native Aric Almirola practiced and qualified the No. 20, all with the best laid plans to step aside in plenty of time for Saturday night’s race.
Well, Almirola gave Hamlin a great starting spot, qualifying the No. 20 on the pole; then, he waited patiently for him to arrive from Sonoma after practicing the No. 11 Monte Carlo. While Almirola waited, the No. 11 team struggled to setup the new Car of Tomorrow for Infineon’s twisting turns. That delayed Hamlin from making the trip, but he deemed providing feedback on the Car Of His Foreseeable Future to be far more important in the long run.
When the Gibbs jet finally arrived in Wisconsin during the late afternoon, Hamlin hurriedly boarded a helicopter to take him to the race track with time to spare. The helicopter was arriving at the track 15 minutes before the cutoff time they had been informed of for landing at the track, but when they arrived, they ran into a second problem. The pilot was informed that cars were inadvertently parked on the helicopter landing pad and would have to be moved before Hamlin could touch the ground. As the helicopter hovered, waiting for the landing area to be cleared, Almirola was dressed and at the ready just in case Hamlin was further delayed.
Turns out he’d need be.
When the cars in the lot were finally moved and the pilot was given approval, he had to abort before landing when it was discovered that more cars had been parked on the pad. By now, the window of opportunity for landing at the track had closed, and the helicopter diverted to a local airport. Hamlin wasted no time jumping into a car to drive to the racetrack; unfortunately, it was too late to make the start of the AT&T 250.
That opened the door for an excited Almirola. Informed that he would be driving instead of Hamlin, the Cuban-American climbed into the No. 20 car, preparing himself to run the full race distance. He drove the pace laps, took the green flag, and barreled off into the first turn pacing the field. In fact, he led the first 43 laps of the race before he was passed by Buschwhacker Carl Edwards. Curious as to what would happen next and watching intently on the sidelines, Hamlin was also asked and affirmed that, indeed, Almirola would be in the car for the night.
Everything seemed to be fine and dandy…well, not quite.
That wasn’t enough of an answer for a racer that flew all the way out here to drive. Hamlin was looking for another car to finish the race for, possibly filling in for Stephen Wallace, who was driving under the weather with some stomach issues and wasn’t feeling well.
Well, it was at this point, based on post-race interviews, that J.D. Gibbs, was informed of the team’s decision and asked if it was worth it to put someone like Denny Hamlin into the car. The primary reason for asking the question of Hamlin’s ability to go through a driver change and still win the race was because the team sponsor, Rockwell Automation, had hundreds of employees at the track who came to see Hamlin drive their car. The Gibbs organization apparently felt pressure that they had to have Hamlin in the car to keep their sponsor happy, although according to JGR spokesman J.D. Gibbs, it was apparently a group decision that they could win the race with Hamlin behind the wheel. As a result, it was decided that Hamlin would replace Almirola to keep the sponsors happy – and the team well-funded. The fact that Almirola had been leading the race and was keeping pace with Edwards was irrelevant; as if to show their lack of support, Almirola was subsequently called down pit road on Lap 58 while track crews cleared a simple accident that had bought out the yellow flag. Quickly and efficiently, Almirola was removed from the car while Hamlin got in to finish the race.
Just like that, the firestorm of controversy had begun.
The driver change took some time, causing Hamlin to lose a lap, but he was able to make it up and ultimately went on to win. Meanwhile, Almirola left the track before the race’s completion, refusing to be interviewed even though he started the race behind the wheel. Still, Almirola is credited with being the victor even though he was nowhere near Victory Lane when the race concluded…it’s a weird situation for everyone involved, to say the least.
Now certainly, there are times when teams will have to do things that they do not like to keep a sponsor happy… but this decision went over the top. A capable and qualified driver was running at the front of the pack after putting his car on the pole, and was in very good position to win the race. Instead, tough decisions were made, and as a result, never was there a more pronounced moment where a driver knew exactly where he stood on the totem pole in NASCAR history.
In today’s corporate driven world of NASCAR, this is becoming an all too familiar tune that is quite disturbing to those fans that are more concerned with the racing than with the image. Not too long ago, it was older drivers losing their rides that appeared to be the problem; Sterling Marlin was booted out of his ride at Ganassi racing because Coors wanted a younger driver behind the wheel of the car that bears their company brand. The word was that Ward Burton lost his ride in the Caterpillar car because the people in Peoria felt like he was not a polished enough spokesperson for their company and they wanted a fresh face in the car. There have even been rumblings that Anheuser-Busch is reevaluating whether they will continue with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or whether he’s too old, peppering them with promises of a younger face they feel would be a fresher, hipper look for their Budweiser brand.
This trend can be problematic. Of course, the fallout from this is that car owners have obviously lost control of their organization’s driver development, especially when the sponsors are dictating which handsome young face is placed into the cars that they put their brand on. Young drivers are being thrust into Cup rides well before they’re prepared because owners feel like they have to get a certain face behind the wheel to keep their sponsors happy. At Michigan, Tony Stewart pointed the finger squarely at rookie David Gilliland as being too green and too unprepared to be on the track at the Cup level. While many of the pundits who follow the sport felt like Gilliland wasn’t ready, Robert Yates couldn’t take the chance on someone else stealing away the driver he wanted, so he put him into a Cup ride well before he was ready to race at the highest level. More than ever, young drivers are scooped up before they have a chance to breathe; but if you give them a chance to prove themselves, they struggle to adapt between the two series.
Saturday night’s debacle at Milwaukee is just the latest installment of a sponsor pressuring a team into make a decision that was not logical from a racing standpoint. It was a shame to see Almirola yanked out of the car; he did the dirty work necessary to be running up front and should have been rewarded when Hamlin could not make the green. If Almirola is indeed the future of Joe Gibbs Racing, as J. D. Gibbs claims, then they’ll need to do better with his development than having him only running piecemeal. Yet in this new age of keeping a sponsor happy, Almirola should probably be happy deep down the sponsor allowed him to race at all.
What a shame.
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