Throwback Thursday: Joe Gibbs Racing pulls Aric Almirola from winning car mid-race
Aric Almirola is in a good place right now, driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, where last year he qualified for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time and this year is a respectable 15th in points.
But one of the most bizarre weekends of his career — or any driver’s career — happened eight years ago, and it’s the subject of today’s Throwback Thursday feature.
In 2007, when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was racing at Sonoma Raceway, site of Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350, Almirola was qualifying a NASCAR XFINITIY Series car for Joe Gibbs Racing at the Milwaukee Mile, half a country away.
And Almirola did his job well, putting the No. 20 Rockwell Automation-sponsored JGR Chevrolet on the pole at Milwaukee for the Saturday night XFINITY race.
Meanwhile, after completing Sprint Cup Happy Hour at Sonoma, JGR driver Denny Hamlin hopped on a team plane for Milwaukee, where he was scheduled to drive the car Almirola qualified.
Hamlin’s plane got to Milwaukee on time, and he boarded a helicopter for the track. But cars were parked on the helipad and the chopper couldn’t land, so Hamlin flew back to the airport, got a car and drove to the track, arriving well after the race began.
The race started with Almirola behind the wheel of the No. 20 and he pulled out to a comfortable lead. But when Hamlin finally arrived at Milwaukee, the team pitted Almirola on Lap 59 and pulled him out of the car, putting Hamlin in, reportedly at the Milwaukee-based sponsor’s request.
Hamlin went on to win, although Almirola was officially credited with the win because he was behind the wheel when the race started.
In Victory Lane, Hamlin apologized for replacing Almirola, who was understandably furious.
"I didn’t want to do it," Hamlin said. "I knew he (Almirola) would be really upset."
Yes, he was. So much so that he decided to depart from JGR, the team that had signed him in 2004 as one of NASCAR’s first Drive for Diversity participants. (Almirola is of Cuban descent).
Within a month of the Milwaukee debacle, Almirola announced he was leaving JGR to join Ginn Racing to share the No. 1 Sprint Cup Chevrolet with veteran Mark Martin. From 2007-2012, Almirola drove for seven different teams, before finally finding a solid situation at Richard Petty Motorsports in 2012.
But without question, that one night in 2007 changed the course of his career in ways he likely never could have imagined.