Starting Over Fine With Almirola
Racing is cyclical, and no one knows that better than Aric Almirola.
At 26, he has experienced the ups and downs of the NASCAR world firsthand. The highs have included driving for some of the best teams the sport has to offer, while the lows have seen the Tampa, Fla., native unemployed, on the sidelines, waiting in the wings for the next opportunity, and ultimately finding himself at square one where the rollercoaster ride that has become his career over the past five seasons all began.
And though Almirola feels he’s restarting his career from scratch, he has no regrets about the decisions he’s made or the opportunities he’s pursued over those past five seasons, which have seen him make 148 starts for more than 10 different teams across NASCAR’s top three series.
A product of Joe Gibbs Racing’s diversity program, Almirola, who is of Cuban descent and cut his teeth racing go karts and modifieds, made his NASCAR debut at age 21 in 2005, competing in four Camping World Truck Series events for Morgan-Dollar Motorsports before racing full time for Spears Motorsports in 2006. That same year, Almirola followed the traditional progression up the NASCAR ladder, making a limited number of starts in the Nationwide Series for the Gibbs organization before splitting driving duties in JGR’s Chevrolets with Denny Hamlin in 2007.
NASCAR record books show Almirola has one Nationwide Series triumph that season, but it was that same event at Wisconsin’s famed Milwaukee Mile in June that signaled the end of Almirola’s relationship with Gibbs. With Hamlin en route from Sonoma, Calif., but unable to land before the start of the night’s race, Almirola assumed driving duties. Starting on pole, he led the first 43 laps before the team ordered him to pit road with less than 60 circuits completed to put Hamlin in the car, a move team president J.D. Gibbs later admitted was a way of saying “thank you” to Milwaukee-based sponsor Rockwell Automation.
Almirola climbed from the car and left the track, notably upset, while Hamlin drove on to the victory, which was credited to the driver starting the race — Almirola.
Less than a month later, Almirola was granted a release from his contractual obligations with Gibbs, leaving him free to sign with Ginn Racing, a deal which would have him sharing driving duties of the No. 01 Chevrolet with Mark Martin on the Sprint Cup level. That morphed into a ride with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. that had he and Martin sharing the fan favorite No. 8 vacated by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in 2008, and another merger saw him compete for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2009. But when funding fell short after the first seven events, Almirola was without a ride in any series.
“I’ve always appreciated the opportunities that I’ve had, but it definitely opened my eyes when they can be taken away from you so quickly,” Almirola said. “When I was young and dumb, I thought I was a great race-car driver and these people were calling me because I was a great race-car driver and that I could just go and race anything. I found out real quickly how easily it can be taken away.”
Unemployed but eager to race, Almirola made another Cup start for car owner James Finch and competed in a handful of Nationwide Series events later that season. But it was with Billy Ballew Motorsports in the truck series that Almirola found his footing, amassing seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes over 16 of the final 18 races in 2009.
“It humbled me really quickly to go all the way back down [to the truck series],” he explained. “To first not have a job, then to have a job and to be back in the truck series, I felt like it was my time to prove that I could do it.”