- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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WEST ALLIS, Wis. -- Neither winner of last year's Nationwide Series race will be at The Milwaukee Mile to defend his crown Saturday night (8:30, ESPN2).
That's somehow fitting, since there really weren't any winners in a race that saw Aric Almirola qualify on the pole and lead the first 43 laps as he was credited with the victory. The thing is, Almirola wasn't even at the track when Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20 Chevrolet took the checkered flag ahead of Scott Wimmer.
Almirola, who was only scheduled to qualify the car in the first place, started the race only because a car parked on the track's helipad forced Denny Hamlin's helicopter to land outside the track. By the time Hamlin reached the infield, the race had started.
In a perfect world, Hamlin would have watched the race from the pits, perhaps even offering Almirola advice over the radio. But Hamlin had flown from Sonoma, Calif., where he was preparing for the next day's Sprint Cup race, because the car's sponsor was headquartered in Milwaukee.
And with JGR trying to get the sponsor to sign on for this season, the decision was made to put Hamlin in the car under caution. On the surface, it worked out fine since Hamlin bounced back to win the race -- though the driver who starts the race gets credit for the victory, which is why Almirola was listed as the winner even though NASCAR's post-race summary correctly credits Hamlin with leading the final lap.
On top of that, Almirola has since left JGR to drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc., and the sponsor didn't return to the team, either.
Still, a win is a win, and it'll be up to Joey Logano, fresh off his win this past Saturday at Kentucky Speedway, to get the job done for JGR this time around. He's looking forward to the challenge, returning to a track where he ran an American Speed Association race when he was 14.
"I expected to win Dover but didn't know if that was realistic," Logano said of his debut. "It was cool to get our first win in my third start. Obviously, I was getting in one of the best cars out there, which has won seven races. I have to win races. It's not even an option.
"To get our first win and second pole at Kentucky, I feel like we can keep rolling as a team. I'm kind of used to all of the pressure. I think I like all of the pressure. I feel weird without it. I don't think it took any pressure off of me to win at Kentucky because I'm still expected to keep winning. It shows that I'm here and we're running up front right off the bat. With the cars that Dave Rogers and the whole team have given me, I expect that we'll be in contention every week."
The drivers who finished second and third in this race hope to have something to say about that, especially Wisconsin native Scott Wimmer, who was second in Richard Childress Racing's Chevrolet.
Wimmer won earlier this year at Nashville and covets his seventh career win in the series.
"It was a good finish for our team, but it was disappointing to finish second," Wimmer said of last year's race. "We are going to go up there and hopefully have a strong car and a strong run. It's going to be a big homecoming. I have a lot of family and friends coming to the race. I'm excited to see everyone, and it will be my first trip home this year."
With at least 80 members of his fan club in attendance, he wants to give them a good showing. Wimmer grew up about three hours away, but remembers watching the likes of Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Dick Trickle and Jim Sauter while sitting in the grandstands.
He even has a plan in place to handle the family and friends who will be in attendance.
"I tell everyone I can't get tickets so I normally pawn some of that responsibility off on my mom or wife," Wimmer said. "There is a lot of pressure racing in front of the home crowd, but I think I put that pressure on myself. You want to do well and you don't want to fail. Last year I was really disappointed with a second-place finish, but that's what keeps me driving every week. There are a lot of great drivers and race fans up there. I definitely want a win at Milwaukee before I'm done racing."
Jason Leffler finished third at Milwaukee last June and hopes to show that Braun Racing can be competitive even without one of Toyota's Cup regulars running in the team's No. 32 entry. That car has been the stalwart for Braun thus far in 2008.
That's not the only reason he's looking for a strong run, though.
"A lot of people do not realize that The Milwaukee Mile is the oldest continually operating race track in the world. Their first motorized racing event took place in 1903, eight years before the first Indianapolis 500," Leffler said. "The best of the best have raced there and have their names down in the record books. To win at a The Milwaukee Mile and have my name listed alongside names like A.J. Foyt and Parnelli Jones, two of my personal heroes, would be really special as far as I'm concerned."
Of course, Logano, Wimmer, Leffler and Nationwide-only drivers such as Brad Keselowski may well have to contend with points leader Clint Bowyer and fellow double-duty drivers David Reutimann, Carl Edwards and David Ragan. Nationwide regular Marcos Ambrose is also trying to make his Cup debut at Sonoma and will run both races if he qualifies for the Cup field.
Edwards, who hasn't won in over a year, will be working with new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer for the first time after Pierre Kuettel and Blickensderfer switched jobs earlier this week. Kuettel will now work with the part-time No. 17 team that fields Fords for Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.