Every young boy or girl who owns a pair of racing gloves and a helmet dreams about the day they can set NASCAR on fire.
In days past a driver earned his or her due by completing the ABC’s of NASCAR: the ARCA RE/MAX Series, the (then) Busch Series, before finally making it to the Sprint Cup level. Over the last few years, however, there has been the ever constant push to get to the Cup as quickly as possible, some drivers being thrown right in without any type of experience from another level.
Scott Speed and Juan Pablo Montoya are two drivers that never completed a full, or even half a season, in the Nationwide Series before receiving full-time NSCS rides. Each has made a highlight or two in his career, but the inexperience isn’t hard to hide.
Drivers just don’t want to wait; everyone believes they’re ready and can get the job done. Each of those individuals should sit down and talk to a driver who can say, “been there, done that, and it wasn’t easy.”
Aric Almirola, the 26-year-old Tampa, FL native who recently signed a multi-year agreement with JR Motorsports is that driver. Almirola will be the driver of the No. 88 NNS car that since being vacated by Brad Keselowski has gone through a plethora of drivers as they searched for the best fit
Almirola fit the bill and will begin chasing a championship in 2011 with Tony “Pops” Eury Sr. remaining crew chief and GT Vodka and Unilever sharing sponsorship. When making the announcement last weekend in Bristol, excitement laced Almirola’s words as he talked about his newest opportunity and the chance to race for what he considered one of the best NNS teams in the garage.
In 2008 Keselowski led the team to two wins and third in the final championship standings. The following year they won four races and again finished third in the championship fight.
Every driver that has been in the car since Keselowski, including Sprint Cup stars Elliott Sadler and Jamie McMurray, have talked about the capability of the team and the equipment. As long as Pops stays atop the box, Almirola shouldn’t have many problems.
“I’m just tickled to death to go into next year and have an opportunity like that, to go win races and run for a championship with an organization that’s already proved that they can do both things,” Almirola said.
“I’m really excited.”
The new contract isn’t the only thing that makes Almirola someone to talk to; it’s the career that only a few years old has given him experience beyond his years. He’s been in rides, out of rides, sharing rides and with no ride at all.
Just a few short years ago he was the next best thing at Joe Gibbs Racing, sharing seat time in the No. 20 Rockwell Automation Chevrolet with cup driver Denny Hamlin. When Hamlin had to fly back and forth between a cup race and the NNS race in Milwaukee, Almirola practiced and qualified the car on the pole as well as started the race.
He was running away with the event when Hamlin showed up. Even while leading, Almirola was taken out of the car. Cameras watched as a frustrated Almirola walked back to the garage and left the track, never receiving the winner’s trophy that he’s credited with earning.
A year later Almirola was sharing a ride again, learning from Mark Martin at Dale Earnhardt Inc. after Dale Earnhardt Jr. left for Hendrick Motorsports. Before the start of 2009 it looked like the driver was finally going to have his own Cup Series ride, a dream come true, as he was told that the No. 8 was his for a full season.
A sponsor didn’t appear and Almirola was released. Now he was at rock bottom. Thinking that he had done everything right, going the NNS and experiencing a cup car before being handed the keys, it was all gone.
Unemployment gives someone plenty of time to reflect while wondering what’s going to happen next. For Almirola, he said it humbled him. He was in the midst of experiencing events in just a few short years that someone never experienced through their entire careers.
“I’ve always appreciated the opportunities that I had, but it definitely opened my eyes when they can be taken away so quickly.”
He wasn’t without a ride for long before Billy Ballew came calling to again share a seat, this time with Kyle Busch. When Busch started his own team before the start of the 2010 season, Almirola was there to fill the vacancy.
At Dover in May he won his first career race and then his second at Michigan a month later. At one point he was leading the championship standings, but now sits second, over 200 points behind leader Todd Bodine.
It’s the recurring theme of Almirola’s career, going from the top to the bottom. Now he finds himself climbing back toward the top and the Cup Series. With JR Motorsports it provided him the perfect opportunity reach the next rung of the ladder.
“I had several other opportunities, but this was the opportunity that I looked at that I felt like at being 26-years-old I could wait a few more years before going to cup and still be OK,” Almirola explained.
“I felt like this was the place where I needed to be to prove that I can win races and run for a championship at the next level. I didn’t want to go too fast too quick and end up like I was a few years ago.”
That attitude is one that should be fully embraced and learned from. Not being in a rush means Almirola won’t make the same mistakes twice. He’s smarter now. This time around he’s bound to enjoy every minute of what’s in front of him because his eyes won’t be what else is out there.
All in due time because sometimes it pays to have to do things all over again.
“I don’t regret anything I’ve done career wise or personally, I just always look ahead,” Almirola said. “It doesn’t do you any good to look backwards so I’m very thankful that I started young because if I was doing this at 36 I don’t think I’d have the same opportunities that I do at 26.
“I feel like it’s made me a lot better race car driver and a lot better person because I’ve been through a lot of stuff.”
Been there, done that and now he’ll do it all over again eagerly.
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