One of NASCAR’s Strangest Moments – Aric Almirola’s First Win
Aric Almirola, aka “The Cuban Missile,” is a veteran NASCAR driver at age 33, having been in the sport since 2005. First appearing in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series competition July 23, 2005 at Memphis International Raceway’s O’Reilly 200 (where he finished 30th out of 36 entries), it took him less than two years to reach the coveted winner’s circle in one of NASCAR’s premier levels. It was June 23, 2007 at “The Milwaukee Mile” in West Allis, Wisconsin where he earned the first of his five top-tier NASCAR wins (one in Cup, two in Xfinity, and two in Camping World Trucks).
Ask any race car driver–at any level of the sport–to share the story of their first win, and you’ll most likely get a complete and detailed recounting of the event, often lap-by-lap. Like in so many aspects of life, it’s clearly true that you never forget your first and, in Almirola’s case, his “first” has a bizarre twist that makes it one of NASCAR’s strangest stories in a sport steeped in strange stories. The fact that Almirola did not drive the car across the finish line to win the race is one of the things that makes the story standout in NASCAR history, but it’s not the only thing.
The story begins the day of the race, when the scheduled driver of the No. 20 Rockwell Automation Chevrolet, Denny Hamlin, was traveling to the track from an out-of-state appearance. Arriving at the track via helicopter, Hamlin’s pilot found that the helipad had been pressed into service as a parking lot, making it impossible to land. Timing was tight, and it was already known that Hamlin would not be there to qualify the car for the event, so Almirola was tapped to get the car in the field. He did, laying down a lap of 121.589 mph, good enough for the pole position. Not bad, but the best (for Almirola, anyway) was yet to come.
With Hamlin circling the area in a helicopter, unable to land, and with the clock moving toward the scheduled start time for the 250-lap event, the crew elected to put Almirola back in the car for the green flag. He took immediate command of the event, leading the first 43 laps and keeping the car near the top of the field until Hamlin’s helicopter landed and he was suited up. The No. 20 crew eventually elected to put Hamlin in the car during a pit stop, a step that put them a lap behind the field. Hamlin came out of the pits with a head of steam, eventually getting back on the lead lap on lap 144. Proving the No. 20 to be the dominant car that day, Hamlin drove to the front of the field and took the lead on lap 237, pacing the final 13 laps for the victory.
Under NASCAR rules, the driver in the car at the start of the race gets statistical credit for the win, so that’s the story of Aric Almirola’s inaugural NASCAR win. One other interesting aspect of this story is that after landing and getting set to race, Hamlin actually was tapped as a stand-by driver for Mike Wallace, how was reporting an illness and who might need relief during the event. Wallace recovered and went on to finish 11th in the race.