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Strange turn of Events in Milwaukee Busch Race
Roy Schmidt Photo 2007
Roy Schmidt Photo 2007

By: Mark W. Theisen

June23, 2007:

41,925 race fans will be talking about tonight’s AT & T 250 for the NASCAR Busch Series car on the Milwaukee Mile at Wisconsin State Fair Park Speedway for along time to come as it was drama combined with racing to produce a finish seen only once in NASCAR Busch series racing and a rarity in all of the sport, that being a relief driver winning the race for the driver who had started the event.

To fully understand this one has to go back to the premise that has evolved in recent years in the stand alone Busch races that feature drivers from the Nextel Cup Series. When the Busch cars are racing a distance from the Cup race “relief” or “set-up” driver is used to practice the car and perhaps qualify it. That was the case for the Joe Gibbs owned Rockwell Automation Chevrolet that was entered for Denny Hamlin.

With Hamlin in Sonoma, California for the Nextel Cup race the team used their development driver Aric Almirola for practice, set-up and qualifying for the car. Last year Almirola did the same and put the car on the pole stepping aside for Hamlin to drive and race the car. Almirola has the same results this year putting the car on the pole but when Hamlin encountered troubles in landing near the Mile just prior the race the team was forced to start Almirola in the car.

When the green flag waived it was Almirola driving off into the lead as Hamlin battled from the airport to the track and then atop the team’s pit stop as the laps began to click off with him in the difficult position of watching his car leading the race over Jason Leffler, Scott Wimmer, Brad Coleman and Carl Edwards.

Ironically it was Edwards, the series point leader, who was one of the three of the original five drivers scheduled to do the difficult California/Wisconsin double duty. Edwards however opted out of the second Cup practice session and began his journey to Wisconsin in hopes of arriving in time to qualify the car. He did so with one minute to spare after having to stop for plane fuel twice along the way and having to sprint through the pits to his car for the second week in a row.

“Starting 15th is better than starting 43rd,” said Edwards when asked if it was worth the effort. “We don’t have to work as hard and can save the car for the long haul in the race.”

Ian Henderson brought out the first caution of the race on lap 29 when an oil line broke spewing oil all over the front straightaway. The caution sent the lead lap cars to the pits with Almirola’s crew getting him out in the front position followed by Edwards, Leffler, Wimmer, Todd Bodine and Coleman.
Bodine, who was subbing for Dave Blaney who passed on the double duty weekend to stay in California, was penalized for pit row speeding and was sent from 5th to 31st on the restart. On the restart Almirola went wide into the first turn allowing Edwards and Leffler to get by.

Some time after the start of the raced it was determined by a “group” of Gibbs Racing people and people from Rockwell Automation, whose corporate home is in Milwaukee, that Almirola was to get out of the car and Hamlin in. The reason, not officially announced, was that the large group of Rockwell employees and executives in attendance tonight came to see Hamlin race.

When the caution appeared for the second time after contact between Todd Kluever and Ron Hornaday Jr that sent the latter’s car into the wall very hard and out of the race it became the time for the driver change.

Almirola pitted and turned the car over to Hamlin. Dejected he stalked from the car to the team’s hauler and disappeared into the night. When Hamlin took the car to the track he was in 34th place one lap down to the leader, Edwards.

From that point Edwards was on cruise control building his lead lap after lap over Leffler, Wimmer, Coleman and Jason Keller as Hamlin battled through the cars one lap down to the point that he was in NASCAR’s “lucky dog” position when the caution appeared for debris on the track at lap 149.

The leaders had all stopped for tires and fuel on lap 120 for the fourth caution for a three car spin by Robert Richardson Jr., Steven Wallace and Kelly Bires so with another quick yellow they did not stop on lap 149, however Hamlin did and when he retuned to the track he was now on the lead lap in 15th place.

Now it was Hamlin who was quickest on the track moving to 6th by lap 163 and when Scott Lagasse Jr. was hit from behind by Bodine sending his car hard into the front stretch wall for the 6th caution on lap 165 he was ready to strike.

With Edwards’s crew faltering on the stop dropping him to sixth position the entire face of the race changed. Mike Wallace and Stephen Leicht took two tires and came out of the pits ahead of Wimmer, Hamlin, Coleman and Leffler who took on four tires.

Hamlin made short work of both Wimmer and Leicht on the first lap back under green taking the lead from Mike Wallace on lap 177 just as Edwards race continued its downward spiral with a flat right rear tire under the green that put him a lap down with 90 laps to go.

With Hamlin in the lead and in clean air he was stretching his lead while Edwards continued to be the fastest car on the track moving from the seventh car one lap down to being the car that would get his lap back on the next caution. That caution did not come until Wisconsin driver Frank Kreyer, making his first Busch series start, lost control of his car on lap 221 and hit the wall. With just 29 laps remaining it set up the possibility of pit strategy being used and it was Wimmer’ team opting for just two cars as the Wisconsin driver emerged from the pits with the lead late in the race at the track he has coveted winning on.

Wimmer led five laps after the restart before Kevin Hamlin was hit by Mike Wallace bringing out the 8th yellow flag setting up another restart to worry about for Wimmer with Leffler and Hamlin still behind.

On the restart Leffler dropped below Wimmer for the lead and the pair battled for the lead side by side when Hamlin made it three wide to take the lead that he held through the 9th and final yellow of the race for a spin by four cars.

At the finish it was Hamlin, Wimmer, Leffler, Coleman and Keller rounding out the top five. Edwards came back to finish 8th after leading the most laps in the race.

Almirola was credited with the win per NASCAR rules, his first in the series. He was also awarded the prize money and first-place driver points.

A somber Hamlin was bombarded with questions following his win and went through victory lane without Almirola. “I really didn’t want to get in the car”, said Hamlin. “Aric (Almirola) was doing a great job and I was just sitting on the pit box when Dave (crew chief Rogers) told me that I was to get in the car. It wasn’t my choice. I did what I was told to do. Milwaukee is home for Rockwell Automation and many people where here to see me race and we didn’t want to disappoint them.”

Talking about his car after the race Hamlin said, “When I got in the car it really wasn’t that good. Dave (Rogers) and the guys worked on the car all race long to make it better and we were good at the end. When Scott (Wimmer) and Jason (Leffler) ran side-by-side it left me an opportunity and I went for it and came out ahead. I’m just glad I won as the win is well deserved by Aric and the team,”

For Wimmer it is another frustration at The Mile. “Our car was good out front but in traffic I had my hands full,” said Wimmer. “I drove as hard as I could there at the end but that those restarts and caution killed our momentum each and every time. I am confident I can win here and in these cars, its just that each slipped opportunity stings a bit more but I know that week in and week out I have the equipment to get the job done.”

This was Wimmer’s fourth top five finish in his last four races to prove that he is ready to win for the first time for Richard Childress Racing and for the first time in the Busch series since 2003.

The only relief driver to win in the Busch series was Harry Grant driving for Jack Ingram at Darlington Raceway on April 13, 1985. In the Cup series it was Darrell Waltrip for Donnie Allison on August 7, 1977 so one can see that this rarely happens.
Wimmer’s second led the Wisconsin contingent in the race, with Kluever finishing 18th, Bires 30th and Kreyer ending up in 34th after his late race crash.

Edwards continues to lead the standings 776 points ahead of David Reutimann and was very philosophical after suffering his second misfortune in a row after having the dominant car in the race. Last week he was hit by Steve Wallace knocking him from the race after leading the most laps and then tonight’ pit woes and cut tires. “It’s not like were suffering,” said Edwards. “Week in and week out I have the cars that can win and that’s all a driver can ask. Competition is so keen and things can and do happen. We were competitive tonight; we just didn’t have the finish I would have liked. We’ll get them next week.”
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