Sometimes, fate deals you a winning hand, just not the one you expected.
No one knows that better than Aric Almirola driver of the No. 51 Zyclara-Graceway Pharmaceuticals Toyota Tundra for Billy Ballew Motorsports.
By now, the 26-year-old Tampa, Fla., native should be piloting a first-rate NASCAR Sprint Cup ride.
A graduate of NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity program — and arguably the most successful grad at that — Almirola had a seat with Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Midway through the 2007 season, he qualified on the pole at The Milwaukee Mile and was leading the race when he was replaced midway through the event by Denny Hamlin, who went on to win the race, a victory that officially was credited to Hamlin.
Incensed and humiliated by what happened, Almirola asked for his release from the team a month later, ending up at Dale Earnhardt Inc., where in 2008 he shared the No. 8 car with Mark Martin.
But DEI merged with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates for 2009, and Almirola ended up out of work when Earnhardt Ganassi Racing shuttered the No. 8 Chevrolet after seven races into the ’09 season for lack of sponsorship.
“It was extremely difficult,” Almirola said. “You know, I felt like my dreams had been dashed. I felt like I didn't see any light at the end of the tunnel for a few weeks. I didn't give up on my dreams. I didn't give up on racing. But I didn't know what was next. I had no idea. I felt like I was in the best position possible. I felt like I was with a good organization. All of a sudden the economy hit and we didn't have a sponsor. Next thing I knew, I didn't have a job. So that was really tough for me.”
Then things turned around.
Almirola eventually ended up at Ballew’s truck team, which had enjoyed considerable success whenever Kyle Busch drove the No. 51 Toyota.
In 2010, Almirola proved it wasn’t just Busch who made the team tick. So far this year, Almirola has victories at Dover and Michigan and is second in points, just 88 markers behind Todd Bodine headed into Friday’s event at Gateway International Raceway.
Suddenly, the misfortunes Almirola has had don’t seem to weigh on him as heavily.
“I have a lot of faith in God and I feel like everything happens for a reason,” said Almirola. “Obviously, looking back on it, I felt like the day they called me and told me the 8 car was shutting down, I didn't have a job anymore, I felt miserable. I felt like it was one of the worst days of my life. But really looking back on it, I feel like it's been a career changer for me.”
Now, Almirola is showcasing what he can do with a top-flight ride in the Truck Series.
Hendrick Motorsports has thought enough of Almirola to place him on standby for first Jimmie Johnson and then Jeff Gordon as a backup driver in case baby duty called. Johnson’s wife gave birth last week, while Gordon’s is due in the next month.
Almirola is also on the short list for a Cup ride with Red Bull Racing, should a seat open up. Red Bull Vice President and General Manager Jay Frye said last month that the time might give Almirola a tryout before the end of this season, much as it is doing with Reed Sorenson now.
In any event, whether he stays in the Truck Series and contends for race victories and championships, Almirola in back in the game in a big way.
“I've been able to step back to the Truck Series, get in good equipment, be able to go out and show what I'm capable of when I have a great team around me,” Almirola said. “When one door closes another door opens, I guess you could say.”
Of course, the ultimate goal is still a Cup ride, but Almirola insists that as long as he’s in good equipment, he’ll be satisfied.
“Man, I've learned in this sport you never know,” said Almirola. “You can't expect anything. You can't feel like you deserve anything. Everything is, you know — I don't know the right way to put it. Everything is very rewarding when it does happen.
“With this sport, things change at a moment's notice. So I've learned to not hang my hat on too many things; make sure that I keep digging, don't take anything for granted. I love where I'm at right now with my career. I love going to the racetrack and winning races and being competitive. So as long as I can continue to do that in whatever series I race in, I'll be happy.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.