Tommy Thompson · Thursday April 9, 2009
On Wednesday, it was reported that the No. 8 Chevrolet team of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing will be scuttled immediately, removing themselves off the entry list for the Subway Fresh Fit 500k at Phoenix International Raceway next Saturday night. And with the news everyone has expected for days now becoming official, two separate issues that had been “hot button topics” over the last two seasons have converged and been simultaneously resolved in a most unceremonious manner.
When Dale Earnhardt, Jr., NASCAR’s most recognizable and popular driver, announced in June of 2007 that he would be leaving Dale Earnhardt, Inc., the racing organization debate and controversy over the number 8 soon followed. That number had become synonymous with Dale Jr., emblazoning his Chevrolet throughout his NASCAR Cup career. While driving the Budweiser No. 8 for DEI, Earnhardt had made 17 trips to Victory Lane, including winning the Daytona 500 in 2004 during a nine-year stint that made it impossible to visualize anyone else behind the wheel with that number.
As time rolled on, the issue surrounding the number 8 became more than anything the final matter to be settled in what had become a contentious negotiation in DEI’s attempts to re-sign Earnhardt, Jr. The family drama had polarized opinions within the racing community, as the driver sought to become more than an employee at the company founded by his legendary father and namesake. The difficult negotiations pitted Earnhardt, Jr. against his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt, who, in the end, refused to relinquish control of the race organization to Junior — resulting in the disgruntled driver bolting for Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 Sprint Cup Season.
However, even with the HMS signing, there was still one issue to be resolved… would Teresa Earnhardt allow her stepson to take the number 8 with him? The issue lingered for several weeks and captured the interest of many.
At the heart of the debate was a pro-Junior contingent that believed that Dale Jr. deserved to take the number, used throughout his grandfather Ralph Earnhardt’s racing career. Others, not supportive of what they perceived to be a mark of ungratefulness on Junior’s part in attempting to wrestle control of DEI from his stepmother, believed Teresa Earnhardt had every right to retain it.
Ultimately, DEI decided after negotiations with HMS executives for a transfer of the number 8 that the number would remain with the company and continue to be used. In short order, they acquired both Ginn Racing and the part-time services of Mark Martin for the car. Considering the public outcry at the time, Martin was one of the few drivers that could possibly replace Earnhardt, Jr. in the seat of the No. 8 without encountering significant backlash from the large and demonstrative Earnhardt Nation.
Sharing seat time in that U.S. Army Chevy (sponsor Budweiser left as well) was upstart Aric Almirola, who himself had been at the center of another controversy that had garnered considerable debate in 2007 — controversy that had allowed the then virtually unknown Joe Gibbs Racing development driver to find a spot in the limelight.
Almirola, a Cuban-American born in Tampa, FL, was one of the first benefactors of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, and had been supported by Joe Gibbs Racing since 2004. Slowly but surely, Almirola developed his skills and gained experience, first in late models, the NASCAR North Series, the then-Craftsman Truck Series, and in 2007 the now-Nationwide Series. In June of that year, Almirola was slated to practice and qualify the JGR No. 20 Rockwell Automation Chevrolet for the organization’s up-and-coming Sprint Cup star Denny Hamlin at a standalone Busch race at the Milwaukee Mile. But not only did Almirola fulfill his stand-in duties… he put the No. 20 on the pole in the sponsor’s backyard.
Had the story ended there, Aric Almirola might still be a struggling novice hoping for his big break — but it didn’t. Hamlin, practicing his Cup car for the Sunday event at Sonoma, California’s Infineon Raceway, arrived just after the start of an event that found the then 23-year-old Almirola doing an outstanding job and leading the race. Yet, on lap 59 of 250, the late-arriving Cup veteran was still tabbed to replace Almirola while the field was under caution. The resulting driver swap left the No. 20 JGR car a lap down after having entered the pits as the leader, a move that seemed certain to erase any hope for potential victory.
But Denny Hamlin slowly moved through the field, first getting back on the lead lap and then moving forward through the field to take the lead. In the end, he took what was clearly a superior race car and wrestled it to victory in the AT & T 250. But while Hamlin took the checkered, Almirola, the virtual unknown, was credited with the victory … a victory he did not even see. You see, the young driver had already left the racetrack, visibly upset at having been removed from the car and refusing all interviews on the subject.
In the days that followed, there was considerable news coverage of the unusual turn of events and the perceived shabby treatment that Almirola experienced by JGR management. JGR attempted to diffuse the situation and assert its dedication to Almirola. “I’ve known him for over four years,” Team President J.D. Gibbs stated at the time of the commotion. “I know his family. I know how much this means to them. He’s a huge part of our future. We’ve invested a lot in him, time-wise and financially, and more importantly just getting to know him. No one wants to see him succeed more than we do.”
Both Almirola and JGR tried to make “nice” in front of the media, but it was clear that the young JGR talent was not happy with what had transpired and, within weeks, asked for his release from JGR. He subsequently announced that he had signed to drive for Ginn Racing in the Sprint Cup Series instead, taking an offer which promised a part-time effort that could eventually turn into a full-time ride. He wound up competing five times in 2007 as a co-driver to Mark Martin — an arrangement that continued in 2008 in the No. 8 following the departure of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and the acquisition of Ginn Racing by DEI.
Meanwhile, the Gibbs organization held Almirola to his contract to complete the 2007 Busch Series season, but made no bones about their belief that Almirola was not yet ready for NASCAR’s highest racing series… and that there were no plans in the works to offer him Cup starts in the near future. Ginn, on the other hand, believed he had snagged an exceptional young talent, even as he was drowning in debt and dumping two of his veteran drivers in the process — Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek.
Unfortunately, and for reasons that can be debated, Almirola has never lived up to the hopes that Ginn Racing and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. had for him. Though there were encouraging performances put in by the Florida native, by-and-large his performance has been mediocre at best in a world that expects excellence out of the box. In 25 Sprint Cup starts, Almirola has finished only once within the top 10 with a dismal average finish of 29th. After taking the wheel full-time this season, a series of poor finishes outside the top 30 (six in seven races) were enough to drop the No. 8 car right outside the top 35.
“We’ve [Earnhardt Ganassi Racing] been doing this one [race] at a time, two at a time, three at a time, and it’s really tough to do that,” said EGR President Steve Lauletta as he attempted to explain away the slump. “So, we decided to not go to Phoenix and get ourselves to the point where we can get that sponsor that will believe in Aric and market around Aric and help our team. Once we do that, we’ll be back with the 8 on the track.”
But there will be no white knight rushing in to save Aric Almirola’s career. He gained almost overnight notoriety by leading in a JGR-prepared car at Milwaukee that proved to be capable of winning even after suffering the handicap of being relegated one lap down. His stock undeservedly shot up after the controversial shared win with Hamlin that had a car owner eager to sign what he hoped was a phenom.
But a phenom is one thing Aric Almirola is not. And after more than a season of awful results, he will find it difficult if not impossible to now invest the financial capital in him that is necessary to compete at the Sprint Cup level.
As for the number 8, it will, of course, return in some manner down the road. How and with whom it will resurface is anyone’s guess — possibly as an EGR entrant or with some other owner. It’s easy to know that number would still be riding high had DEI simply relented to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s request to have it. But the bottom line is, they didn’t; and now, it’s set to fade into obscurity for the time being.
So, there you have it; with one simple announcement, two controversies of seasons gone have now finally been settled. And when you look back it all, they seemingly became a whole lot of noise about nothing.
That’s my view from Turn 5.
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