Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday June 26, 2007
Saturday night's Busch Series victory for Joe Gibbs Racing at the Milwaukee Mile has unfairly become a win the organization would just as soon forget. Since that fateful race, the team’s PR department has been inundated with flack over their decision to relieve substitute driver Aric Almirola with Nextel Cup driver Denny Hamlin during the event. Almirola, who had set the fast time in qualifying in the No. 20 Rockwell Automation Chevrolet, led 43 of the first 59 laps of the race before eventually falling to third in the running order. Still running well, he was called to the pits for a driver swap shortly thereafter, with the team deciding to put Hamlin in the car for the rest of the event…a race Hamlin wound up winning going away. Visibly upset at the team's decision to put Hamlin in the car, the 23-year-old refused to be interviewed and apparently exited the speedway before the event concluded.
In my opinion, that was the wrong course of action to take, for Almirola’s team made the only decision they could: the right one.
Before any controversy began, it should be noted that Hamlin had been scheduled to start the race that evening. Almirola, a native of Tampa, FL and under contract to drive for Gibbs, was asked to practice and qualify the car in Hamlin's absence earlier on Saturday while Hamlin practiced his JGR Nextel Cup car in Sonoma, CA. However, due to an already tight schedule and a snafu that prevented the helicopter from landing on the track’s helipad, the quickly rising NASCAR star couldn’t make it to the race before the green flag dropped, leaving Almirola in the car for the start of Saturday’s event. Once Hamlin made it to the ground, however, circumstances clearly changed, and Almirola was sent to the sidelines before 25% of the race was even complete.
That Aric Almirola was upset and disappointed by not being allowed to finish the race is understandable. However, irate motorsports fans’ baseless charges and complaints against JGR's management for deciding to put their ace driver in the race car are not being made with full consideration of the circumstances surrounding the events in Wisconsin. One-sided accusations of unfair treatment of Almirola by the race team are being leveled with little regard for just how well Joe Gibbs Racing has treated the 23-year-old developmental driver, seemingly with little interest or regard to the importance of satisfying team sponsors.
Also lost in the driver swap controversy from the moment the checkered flag dropped in Milwaukee was the fact that Denny Hamlin drove one hell of a race. After losing a lap on pit road to facilitate the driver switchout, Hamlin charged through the field, putting on an awe-inspiring clinic in passing to eventually take the lead with 78 laps remaining. It’s a lead he would lose only after a round of late pit stops relegated him back to the fourth position. But even then, with 13 laps to go, Hamlin made a daring three-wide move to the outside of former Cup drivers Scott Wimmer and Jason Leffler entering Turn 1, successfully retaking the lead and, ultimately, the win.
The move was so amazing, Jason Leffler said of Hamlin's race-winning pass, "Denny set us up like a couple of bowling pins and drove right by us."
However, the significance of winning seems to have been dismissed in the barrage of criticism against JGR. Winning is important to race teams; I'm not intending to be condescending here, but that is the ultimate goal. And the win isn't just about the driver; that victory validates the performance of both the over-the-wall crew and the many employees back at the race shops, whether they are engine builders, fabricators, or engineers. Winning builds confidence throughout an organization, and it serves as a handy tool for a team’s marketing department when negotiating deals with potential future sponsors.
When you look at things strictly from a competitive argument, the race team clearly made the correct decision to put Hamlin, presently second in Nextel Cup points, behind the wheel when the opportunity presented itself. Though losing a lap in the process had to be of concern, the results serve to indicate that the calculated gamble was a wise one. Joe Gibbs Racing simply gave themselves the best opportunity to win the race by putting their better driver in the car. Critics of the driver change who claim that Almirola could have just as easily won the race, and thus, was treated unfairly, are simply crooning nothing but unsubstantiated speculation. Who knows what would have happened if Almirola had stayed in the seat? In contrast, Hamlin possessed the driver history and expertise that validated him as a driver who could get the job done.
There was no malice intended on the part of Joe Gibbs Racing towards the promising young Almirola, who, possessing Cuban heritage, was one of the first participants in NASCAR's Drive for Diversity Program. It’s a program that Joe Gibbs Racing has generously supported, one that is designed to give talented minorities the opportunities they’re looking for in stock car racing.
J.D.Gibbs, president of JGR and son of founder Joe Gibbs, openly expressed the organization’s commitment to their budding young prospect the day after the Milwaukee race.
“I've known him for over four years,” he said. “I know his family. I know how much this means to them. He's a huge part of our future. We've invested a lot in him, time-wise and financially, and more important, just getting to know him. No one wants to see him succeed more that we do.”
I, for one, have no reason to doubt that everything that J.D. Gibbs said is the absolute truth. The Gibbs organization is known within NASCAR circles for their commitment to operating both above the board and with the utmost integrity. It is a standard in business operations that Joe Gibbs, currently head football coach of the NFL's Washington Redskins, insists on.
At the same time, Denny Hamlin flew from California to Wisconsin to pilot Gibbs’ race car, driving as a special gesture of thanks to their longtime sponsor Rockwell Automation. Not only did the company support Hamlin in his formative days as a rookie in the Busch Series, but they’ve proved a valuable revenue source for Gibbs. Based in the Milwaukee area, the sponsor viewed Saturday night’s race as the "home" event for both employees and extended business associates of Rockwell's, many of whom were in attendance. Understandably, the team wanted to reward their sponsor with a win, if at all possible. J.D. Gibbs instructed the No.20 team, "â€¦If you think Denny can get in the car and win the race, Let's go. Let's do that. If you don't think he can do that, let Aric run it out." Well, the team thought Denny could win, and he did just that.
Not surprisingly, some are saying that JGR took the "low road" and kowtowed to their sponsor in the face of such a team decision. These people claim the organization should have been noble, disregarding their wishes and focused on Aric Amirola's feelings. Yeah, right. Who needs sponsors anyways? Well, race teams do! Their money fuels the sport. It's money from Rockwell Automation and dozens of other companies like them that are allowing teams to compete in NASCAR's higher ranks of racing. Without their support, there likely would be no driver development program as we know it today, let alone a well-funded fleet of cars on the track each weekend. Additionally, without the money of a sponsor like that, it is equally doubtful that Aric Almirola would be sitting behind the wheel of a Joe Gibbs Busch car at such a young age.
No matter how people want to tell the tale, there are no true villains in this story. Rockwell Automation, no doubt, wanted to see a premier driver in the car with their company logo on the hood. But they didn't demand it. Denny Hamlin, without question, is blameless; he made it clear he was hesitant to relieve Almirola. In fact, Hamlin was so against the idea he was actually standing by to possibly relieve another driver, Steve Wallace, who was feeling ill and thought he may not be able to finish the event.
Finally, it’s important to note Joe Gibbs Racing certainly has not treated Aric Amirola shabbily at all. The young man was picked up from virtual obscurity and has been supported by JGR through Late Model Racing in his home state of Florida, as well as the Craftsman Truck Series and now in the Busch Series. That support has come with promises of even bigger and better things in the future should he continue to progress but no one said anything about withdrawing that support in the face of the young man receiving his first Busch Series “win.”
So, before enraged fans charge the walls of the Joe Gibbs Racing facility, they need to take a deep breath and truly consider what transpired in Milwaukee. Although the driver changed, in the end, the team won. The sponsor, evil as sponsors areâ€¦saw their car in Victory Lane. And Aric Almirola, though disappointed in not being allowed to finish the race, has seen his stock as a race car driver skyrocket immeasurably overnight.
What’s the harm in that?
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