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Tardy Hamlin relieves Almirola, wins at The Milwaukee Mile

WEST ALLIS, Wis. -- Denny Hamlin proved you don't
necessarily have to be around for the green flag to take the
checkered flag.

And Aric Almirola sulked away from what will go down in the
record books as his first career NASCAR Busch Series victory.

After missing the start of the race because his helicopter
couldn't find a place to land, Hamlin rallied to take the checkered
flag in a wacky AT&T 250 at the Milwaukee Mile on Saturday.

But because Almirola, a substitute driver, started the race in
Hamlin's car, NASCAR officially will credit Almirola with the
victory, points and prize money.

In Victory Lane, Hamlin said it wasn't his decision to kick
Almirola out of the car.

"I didn't want to do it," Hamlin said. "I knew he would be
really upset."

According to NASCAR officials, it was the first time a relief
driver had won a Busch series race since Jack Ingram turned
his car over to Harry Gant at Darlington Raceway on April 13, 1985.

Hamlin went out of his way to credit the young driver he helped
discover for Joe Gibbs Racing.

"He did all the hard work," Hamlin said.

But that will likely be of little comfort to Almirola, who shook
his head as he retreated to the team's transporter after being
ordered to hand the car over to Hamlin. Almirola refused interview
requests and later sneaked out a side entrance to leave the track
without comment.

"I can't help but feel sorry for him," said Gibbs teammate
Brad Coleman, who finished fourth.

Hamlin, one of a handful of drivers splitting time between the
Nextel Cup race in Sonoma, Calif., and the Busch race in Milwaukee
this weekend, arrived late to the racetrack and took the wheel from
Almirola during an early pit stop.

Hamlin steadily sliced through traffic throughout the race and
finally took the lead with 78 laps to go -- then saw one of his
biggest competitors fall out of contention seconds later when Busch
Series points leader Carl Edwards pulled off for an unscheduled pit
stop to change an apparent flat tire.

Hamlin was shuffled back to fourth on the final round of pit
stops, giving Scott Wimmer the race lead. But Hamlin charged back
into the lead on an aggressive move with 13 laps to go, squeezing
past both Wimmer and Jason Leffler in Turn 1.

"Denny set us up like a couple of bowling pins and drove right
by us," Leffler said.

Wimmer finished second and Leffler finished third. Both seemed
perplexed by the No. 20 team's decision to take Almirola out of the
car.

"I was surprised they did it, because Aric was running a good
race," Wimmer said.

Hamlin's day got off to a bad start in Sonoma, as he misread a
practice schedule and figured he didn't need to show up for the
first practice at Infineon Raceway until noon.

"That's Eastern, not Pacific," Hamlin said.

Hamlin stuck around for the final Cup practice, knowing he was
cutting it close to fly halfway across the country to make the
start of the Busch race. Meanwhile, the No. 20 team had Almirola
qualify Hamlin's car -- and he put it on the pole, just as he did
for Hamlin at Milwaukee last year.

Hamlin made it to Milwaukee with time to spare, but the
helicopter carrying him from the airport to the racetrack wasn't
allowed to land because the track's helipad was blocked by parked
cars. They tried to land on the racetrack itself, only to be waved
off at the last minute.

"When we started to descend down to the track, they said, 'No,
you can't,"' Hamlin said.

Hamlin had to chopper back to the airport and drive into the
track, and didn't arrive until after the race had started. The team
allowed Almirola to continue driving, and he held the lead until
Edwards passed him on lap 44.

Almirola continued to run with the leaders, providing a
potential career boost for the 23-year-old driver. But when Ron
Hornaday Jr. crashed on lap 57 to bring out a caution, the No. 20
team called Almirola into the pits and had him step out of the car
so Hamlin could take over.

Was it simply a case of Hamlin's sponsor, Milwaukee-based
Rockwell Automation, wanting to see its star driver take a turn
behind the wheel?

"That might have had something to do with it," Coleman said.

Edwards recovered from the flat tire to finish eighth. He leaves
Milwaukee with a dominant 776-point lead over David Reutimann the
Busch Series standings.

Edwards had some travel misadventures of his own, as he
literally hit the ground running once he arrived from Sonoma.
Edwards had to sprint through the garage area past bewildered race
fans so he could make it to his car in time to qualify.

"There's no way to look cool and run your [tail] off," Edwards
said.

Edwards started his car with about a minute to spare before he
would have lost his qualifying turn, then qualified ninth.

"One minute later, we wouldn't have made it," Edwards said.

Edwards, Hamlin and David Ragan all are expected to return to
Sonoma in time for Sunday's Cup race.