This week, SPEED.com looks at some of the rising stars who made the most of their opportunities in 2010.
If nothing else, Aric Almirola is living proof that in NASCAR as in life, sometimes you have to take a step back before you can take a step forward.
Almirola, the 26-year-old Florida native, appeared headed on the fast track to stardom when he signed first with Joe Gibbs Racing and then with Dale Earnhardt Inc. Ultimately, though, neither deal panned out the way he would have liked.
In 2007, Almirola was pulled from a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at the Milwaukee Mile while leading the event so that Denny Hamlin could take over at the sponsor’s request. Hamlin took the checkered flag, with Almirola officially credited with the victory. But Almirola soon left the team, understandably furious with losing his seat in the middle of a race.
In 2008, he drove 12 races for DEI, sharing the No. 8 Chevrolet with Mark Martin. In his first Cup start, Almirola finished eighth at Bristol and it looked like the start of something very good.
He was supposed to get that car for the full 2009 season, but DEI merged with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates prior to the start of the year and the combined team only had enough sponsorship for two full-time cars. Almirola competed in just seven races with the newly merged team before his car was shut down.
But 2010 was a much happier story for Almirola.
He signed to drive Billy Ballew’s No. 51 Toyota Tundra in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and what some might have viewed as a step backward turned out to be a huge leap forward for Almirola.
Almirola won his first Truck Series race at Dover International Speedway in May, briefly taking the points lead for just one race. Three races later, he won again at Michigan and from the Charlotte race in May on, he held on to the No. 2 points position for the rest of the season, trailing only Todd Bodine for the rest of the year.
When the season ended, Almirola’s numbers truly were impressive: Two victories, 11 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes in just 25 races. And his excellence was rewarded with a promotion for 2011, when he’ll drive the No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet full time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
Almirola’s win at Dover was especially impressive, as he blew a tire and came from two laps down to win. “I just want to thank Billy for believing in me,” he said after the Dover victory. “Last year was a rough year for me and I was pretty down and out and Billy gave me a call in the summertime to give me a chance to drive in his truck and we’ve had a lot of fun together. We do this and we do it because we love it. He’s as much of a racer as I am and that’s why I love racing for him — it’s just so much fun. We have fun every single weekend — good, bad or draw we have a good time and that’s what it’s all about. Billy is a hell of an owner and he puts every dollar he gets from Graceway Pharmaceuticals into our truck and then some.”
As the year went on, a lot of things went right for Almirola. In his first drive for JR Motorsports, he finished third at O’Reilly Raceway Park near Indianapolis. In eight Nationwide starts with the team in 2010, he finished 11th or better five times, earning props from his new boss.
“If there is a quintessential JR Motorsports driver, we feel it’s Aric Almirola,” JR Motorsports team owner Kelley Earnhardt said. “The way he drives, the ambition he carries, the way he represents himself on and off the track, it all fits within our company’s dynamics, our core objectives, and the values of our sponsorship partners.”
Almirola even got to play pinch-hitter in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, replacing Kasey Kahne in the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford for the final five races of the year. The up-and-coming racer capped off a great year with a career-best Sprint Cup finish of fourth at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
So now it’s onward and upward for Almirola. And this time, the hope is there are no false starts.
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.