<
>

Almirola happy for experience, even if it was a trying one

6/28/2007 - NASCAR

For a split second, Aric Almirola thought crew chief Dave Rogers was pulling a joke when he radioed for the driver to hit pit road and get out of his Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet. Quickly, though, Almirola realized it was for real.

The pain in Rogers' voice said it all, as he instructed Almirola to turn the car over to Denny Hamlin during Saturday night's AT&T 250 at The Milwaukee Mile. Almirola drove the car in practice and qualified it on the pole, but was never supposed to drive it.

Hamlin, in Sonoma, Calif., for Sunday's Nextel Cup race, was to fly to Milwaukee and be in the car for the race as a thank-you to sponsor Rockwell Automation, which is headquartered there. And Hamlin would have been there in time for the start if cars hadn't been parked on the helipad where he was to land.

So Almirola started the race and led 43 laps. He was running third under caution on Lap 59 when he turned the car over to Hamlin, who lost a lap while getting strapped into the car. Almirola was last seen angrily walking back to his transporter.

Hamlin ended the day in Victory Lane, even if he simply was the driver who won the race for Almirola. The driver who starts a NASCAR race gets credit for the finish, so Almirola won a race where he'd already left the track.

A day later, J.D. Gibbs, who runs the team for his father, told reporters in Sonoma that his call to Almirola hadn't been returned. But Joe and J.D. Gibbs have since talked with Almirola, who held a conference call Wednesday to share his thoughts.

He's still not happy, and doesn't fully feel as if he won the race, but he is more understanding of the circumstances involved.

"I totally understand the situation [Joe and J.D.] were in and I understand the situation the guys on the team were in," Almirola said. "They made a group decision to put Denny in the car. I'm not saying I necessarily agree with it, still. I'm still not happy with it, but I understand the situation and I understand the position that they were in."

If the trophy eventually finds its way to Almirola, he said he'll put it in the shop, saying the win was a testament to a team that built a car good enough for two drivers to combine to lead 107 laps and win the race.

Now if Almirola takes the checkered flag himself one day, then he'll feel as if he truly won a race.

"I feel like I was a big part of the victory because I set the car up; I practiced the car and I was involved in the setup of the car," Almirola said. "I qualified the car on the pole, so they had the best pit box. So when Denny did get his lap back, they could make up positions in the pits because they had the best pit box.

"But by no way, shape or form do I feel like that was my first victory. I feel like my first victory is still to come and I'll get that and I'll actually be in the car when I cross the start/finish line for that one."

Seemingly within hours of the move to pull Almirola for Hamlin, rumors sprung up that linked Almirola to Ginn Racing's Cup program for next season. Almirola said the talk was flattering, but that he's not leaving JGR.

If Denny would have showed up there on time, I would have just done my job, I would have qualified on the pole and I would have watched the race. This way I at least got to run [59] laps of a Busch race. ... I think it was a good experience for me.

Aric Almirola

It's still uncertain whether he'll run the full Busch schedule for JGR next year, but he does expect to run several Cup races with the team later this year after making his Cup debut at Las Vegas in March.

Sitting down with both Joe and J.D. Gibbs helped diffuse any tensions that were evident at Milwaukee.

"Joe looked at me across the table and said, 'Look, this is a bad, bad situation. We never, ever would have dreamed of anything this crazy ever happening,' " Almirola said. "But he said, 'I can tell you one thing, the positive out of the situation is that you did the right thing. You did a good job.'

"Everything that they asked me to do, I did. I went there and practiced the car and it was fast. I went there to qualify the car and I sat on the pole. Denny didn't make it on time so I got in the car and led the first [43] laps. They basically just encouraged me and let me know it wasn't anything that I did wrong on why I was pulled out of the car. That was definitely a big motivator and a big encouragement to me."

Joe Gibbs -- coach of the Washington Redskins -- has dealt with plenty of ticked off football players over the years and Almirola said his emotions were similar to as if Gibbs had just pulled his quarterback.

"I was pretty upset. I was discouraged a little bit," Almirola said. "I think any true athlete would have been. I was disappointed and got upset and got pretty mad at the time. Rather than do anything or say anything that I would have regretted, I tried to do the right thing.

"The right thing for me at that time seemed to just go ahead and be quiet, keep my mouth shut and leave the race track. And that's what I did. Looking back on it now, I would see things a bit differently. Maybe I should have been in Victory Lane because I was, somewhat, a part of it."

Almirola's next race is in Daytona on July 6th, where he won the pole for the season-opening Busch race.

He says he won't be down about the Milwaukee experience, trying to find the bright side of the situation.

"I think every athlete in the whole wide world at some point questions their ability and tries to see how they measure up. But I think Saturday was a big confidence-booster all the way up until the situation went down," Almirola said. "The fact that I got to start the race [helped].

"If Denny would have showed up there on time, I would have just done my job, I would have qualified on the pole and I would have watched the race. This way I at least got to run [59] laps of a Busch race. I got to lead laps and I fell back to third there and I was racing real hard with [Jason] Leffler and Carl [Edwards]. I think it was a good experience for me."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.