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CUP: Almirola Finally On Right Side Of Fortune

Aric Almirola has not had an easy path to a full-time ride in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. But now that he’s finally here, he intends to try and make the most of it.

One of the first participants in the Joe Gibbs Racing diversity program way back in 2004, Almirola is finally getting his big chance this year, replacing AJ Allmendinger behind the wheel of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford Fusion.

“That was a pretty special phone call to get from Richard Petty,” Almirola said during an exclusive interview Tuesday with SPEED.com. “He asked me — he was real to the point — he said, ‘Well, are you going to come drive my 43 car or what?’ That was an easy answer. The answer was yes.”

The years between signing with JGR and landing at RPM had some monumental challenges for Almirola, who will be a guest on SPEED’s NASCAR Race Hub tonight at 6 p.m. ET.

In 2007, Almirola was pulled from a JGR NASCAR Nationwide car in favor of Denny Hamlin — while leading a race at the Milwaukee Mile. Hamlin took the checkered flag, while Almirola was credited with the victory. The move, which JGR officials later said came at the insistence of the sponsor, led to Almirola’s departure from the team.

The following season he ran 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup races for Dale Earnhardt Inc., sharing a ride with Mark Martin. In 2009, DEI merged with Chip Ganassi’s operation, with Almirola lasting just seven races before the team shut his car down for lack of sponsorship.

From there, Almirola took two steps back and in the process got his career on track again. Rather than focus on what didn’t work and a couple of bad breaks, Almirola looked for new rides that could work.

Two years ago, he won two races and finished second in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series points driving for Billy Ballew, and last year, Almirola finished fourth in points while piloting the No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

“I was really blessed and fortunate to continue to get opportunities and I took every one that was thrown at me,” said Almirola. “I’ve been lucky enough and fortunate enough to make the most out of each opportunity.”

Along the way, Almirola also had a few fill-in Cup rides and, after Allmendinger left RPM to go to Penske Racing in the off-season, Almirola got the call to take over the No. 43 Ford.

And while every driver is excited this time of year, few are as appreciative of where they’re at as Almirola is.

“It’s up to me now,” he said. “And I don’t know that any better opportunity is going to come than to drive this iconic car — Richard Petty’s car. They’ve done so much. The effort that they’ve put into Petty Motorsports to take their program ... Richard put a lot of heart and soul and money into getting his team moved down to Concord (N.C.), get it aligned with Roush Fenway Racing and to get the best motors they can possibly get from Doug Yates and cars from Roush Fenway Racing. They’ve completely turned their organization around for the better and I feel like I’m the lucky guy that gets to get in there when it’s probably the best it’s been in a long time.”

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.