The Most Compelling Substitute Driver Moments in NASCAR History

Joseph SheltonContributor IIIMarch 28, 2013

The Most Compelling Substitute Driver Moments in NASCAR History

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    Now that Joe Gibbs Racing has decided to put Mark Martin in the No. 11 while Denny Hamlin recovers, we're left with what could have been out of the other potential candidates. Sure, Martin was the best choice for the ride, but what would the other guys have offered?

    Personally, I know this is a long shot, but I was aiming for Darrell Wallace Jr. He's a talented kid, and if you have any question about that, check his results. He would have made for a great substitute driver. Maybe even a super-sub.

    Substitute drivers have grabbed headlines since the inception of the sport and, in many cases, have helped develop the sport. They are viewed as underdogs, and rightfully so.

    Usually, on any other race day, the job of the sub is to pilot the car, put on a show for the fans and try to get his name out there for any future employers. Some just do it for the check. However, some subs manage to go out there and grab the headlines.

    Here's a list of memorable moments regarding substitute drivers.

David Pearson (1979 Southern 500)

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    When Rod Osterlund's hotshot rookie driver was injured at Pocono during the 1979 season, he was faced with a dilemma: Who was going to keep the seat warm for his regular driver? This was actually a question without a hard answer. It just so happened that David Pearson didn't have anything better going on. 

    That's right. Foil to Richard Petty and second on the all-time wins list, "The Silver Fox" David Pearson. 

    It just so happened that Pearson was without a ride after quitting the Woods Brothers following an infamous incident in the pits at Darlington in the spring. Although the seat was going to be empty for four weeks, Pearson and Osterlund made a go at it.

    What a go it was. 

    The team scored a pole at Michigan, and when the series made its second stop at Darlington that season, Pearson earned a bit of redemption by winning the 1979 Southern 500 by two laps over Bill Elliott. 

    The union ended soon after that, as Osterlund's rookie recovered enough to finish out the season seventh in points with one win under his belt. The rookie would go on to win Rookie of the Year for 1979.

    Who was the rookie? Dale Earnhardt.

Matt Kenseth (1998 MBNA Platinum 400)

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    In 1998, NASCAR legend Bill Elliott wasn't really doing anything noteworthy except grabbing headlines for back-to-back vicious wrecks at Talladega and California. On top of that, on the weekend of the MBNA Platinum 400, his father passed away.

    1998 was quickly becoming a year to forget for Elliott. 

    With the funeral taking place on race day, Elliott figured he would find a substitute to run the race in his place. And who better than young upstart Matt Kenseth?

    Kenseth was quickly making a name for himself in what was then known as the NASCAR Busch Series (now Nationwide) and was the logical choice as a replacement for the day.

    Kenseth didn't disappoint, managing to finish sixth in his Cup debut. The finish was one of the best debuts in NASCAR history, and it served as a springboard for his future successes. In the years since, he has gone on to two Daytona 500 victories and the 2003 Cup series championship.

    Not bad, considering he made his debut in one of the ugliest paint schemes in recent memory.

Brad Keselowski (2007 O'Reilly 200)

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    2007 started out terribly for Brad Keselowski. He began the year with the mediocre Keith Coleman Racing, but when they shut their doors, Keselowski was left in the cold. His path to racing greatness had stalled.

    However, the funny thing about fate is that it has a way of making situations flip-flop.

    Prior to the Truck Series race at Memphis, Keselowski got a call from Germain Racing. At the time, Germain just happened to house two Toyota powerhouses, including the Tundra of the defending  series champion Todd Bodine. The team's driver, Ted Musgrave, had been suspended for one race after an on-track confrontation with Kelly Bires at Milwaukee. 

    When in dire straits, a driver will take anything that is offered, and Keselowski gratefully accepted this offer. He proceeded to win the pole and lead several laps during the race before getting spun out by Travis Kvapil while the two were racing for the lead. 

    Although he rebounded to finish 16th, his run impressed Dale Earnhardt Jr. so much that he proceeded to put Keselowski in his No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet. Keselowski thanked Earnhardt by winning several races over the next couple of years before moving to Penske Racing.

    And the rest, as they say, is history.

Dale Jarrett (1995 Winston Cup Season)

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    When Ernie Irvan was injured in a testing accident at Michigan in 1994, Robert Yates went through the daunting but unfortunately familiar task of hiring various drivers to fill in the seat of the No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford. He performed this task until the end of the 1994 season.

    At the beginning of the 1995 season, with Irvan still recovering from his injuries, Yates hired Dale Jarrett to run the No. 28 for the season. Jarrett responded by winning the pole for the Daytona 500 and finishing fifth in the race. He went on to win at Pocono later that year and finished 13th in points.

    Irvan came back later in the 1995 season and took control of a second Yates car, the No. 88. The two then switched rides for the 1996 season, with Jarrett in the No. 88 and Irvan back in the No. 28. Jarrett went on to win two more Daytona 500s and the 1999 Winston Cup championship.

Jamie McMurray (2002 UAW-GM Quality 500)

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    2002 was looking to be the year Sterling Marlin finally achieved greatness. He had already captured victories early in the season, had led the points for most of the year and was looking to be a contender for the championship.

    That was, until the checkered flag fell at Kansas Speedway. At that point, Marlin's season was over.

    While racing Jeff Burton coming off of the second turn, Marlin's No. 40 Coors Light Dodge got loose, over-corrected and plowed into the backstretch wall at an awkward angle. Marlin was diagnosed with a cracked vertebra in his neck and was forced to sit out the remainder of the season.

    Enter Jame McMurray.

    Although he'd had a few stout runs during the 2001 and 2002 Busch Series (now Nationwide) seasons, McMurray's career was otherwise unremarkable. Still, Ganassi Racing had confidence enough in him to put him in the seat for Talladega. 

    One week later, McMurray went on to pull off one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history when he won the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte in just his second Cup start. The No. 40 Dodge was a contender all night, and McMurray's win was the second in a row for Ganassi in the event.

    Marlin returned for the 2003 season and drove for Ganassi until the conclusion of the 2005 season. McMurray, meanwhile, gained a seventh-place finish at Atlanta before the conclusion of the 2002 season and went on to win Rookie of the Year in 2003, finishing 13th in points.

Denny Hamlin (2007 AT&T 250)

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    Sometimes, the issue of substitute drivers can be a sore subject for some drivers. Just ask Aric Almirola.

    Although Denny Hamlin was originally slated to drive the No. 20 Rockwell Automation Chevrolet at Milwaukee during the 2007 Busch Series season, he ran into some setbacks regarding his Cup Series obligations. Therefore, Almirola was on standby.

    Almirola won the pole for the race. Though Hamlin was originally slated to start the race, Almirola got start instead due to a late arrival by Hamlin. He proceeded to take the green flag and led several laps, looking to have the strongest car on the track.

    However, when Hamlin arrived, Almirola was pulled due to sponsor obligations. Hamlin went on to win the race, while Almirola received the credit. But that wasn't good enough. Hamlin and the crew celebrated the win and Almirola left the track in a fury.

    The move was seen by many as a slap to the face. A driver would rather earn the win on his own as opposed to having the job done for him. 

    Almirola asked for and was granted his release from the team a month later.