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What’s the Call: Did Aric Almirola Make The Right Career Choice?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s What’s the Call? Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s big controversies. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: Earlier this week, it was announced that Aric Almirola will be headed to Ginn Racing to share a Cup ride with Mark Martin for the rest of 2007 and beyond. Was this the right move for Almiola’s future, or was he wrong to slam the door on an opportunity with one of the top teams in Cup, Joe Gibbs Racing, a team he drove for in the Busch Series up until this surprising turn of events?

Almirola Making The Right Move

Let’s see – sharing a Busch ride with Denny Hamlin or sharing a Cup ride with Martin. Hmmm. That’s a tough choice.

Not!

This is a no-brainer for Almirola… and it has nothing to do with what happened in Milwaukee. Any young driver with dreams of Cup racing would seize this opportunity in a heartbeat.

Martin is known as one of the very best mentors of young driving talent, not to mention a man with 25 years of experience at the Cup level. He is a patient, dedicated teacher, one who will have plenty of knowledge and wisdom to impart to Aric.

For what it’s worth, even Joe Gibbs Racing President JD Gibbs agrees with me: “The fact that Aric will be mentored by Mark Martin made our decision much easier,” said Gibbs regarding JGR’s release of Almirola from his driving duties for 2008.

Perhaps there are concerns about the financial viability of Ginn Racing and the quality of their equipment in general, but Martin has demonstrated that a good driver can run well there. Mark finished second in this year’s Daytona 500 and followed that up with four straight top 10s, despite only running a partial schedule.

In all, he has competed in 14 of 19 races for Ginn this season, but still ranks higher in points (18th) than many full-timers for other established teams. There is little doubt that if Martin was competing full-time in the No. 01, he would make this year’s Chase without a problem.

Conversely, there is no guarantee that a move to the Cup level would come next year for Almirola at Joe Gibbs Racing, and even if it did, his success there is far from assured.

Just look at JJ Yeley, a proven talent in other forms of racing who has yet to find any real success at Gibbs. In 61 Cup races for JGR, Yeley has zero wins, just one top five, four top 10s, and 10 DNFs. He’s currently 19th in points, one spot below Martin and his partial schedule mentioned above.

Despite the struggles, Yeley could remain at JGR next season, and it’s unlikely the organization would have added a fourth Cup team next year and given the ride to Almirola, as JD Gibbs acknowledged today: “Aric is a tremendous talent, and he had the opportunity to do more races in a shorter period of time than we could provide to him.”

But even if the unlikely happened and Almirola did race Cup full-time at JGR next season, he would team not only with Yeley and Hamlin, but with the mercurial Tony Stewart, who proved last week that he is not above throwing a teammate under the bus if it suits his needs. That’s quite an intimidating prospect for a young driver like Almirola, especially when compared to the comfort of a mentor like Martin.

Meanwhile, there are lingering uncertainties about next season for both the Ginn and Gibbs organizations. Unconfirmed rumors persist that Joe Gibbs Racing may be considering a move to Toyota in 2008, and we all know how badly the Toyota teams have struggled this season.

On the other hand, the rumored Ginn merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc. could mean an end to Ginn’s financial troubles and a chance for Almirola to drive for DEI – a team which my esteemed colleague Mr. Thompson has recently praised, describing their Car of Tomorrow program as “top notch” and arguing that they have both “racecars and team personnel that have been capable of winning races and championships.”

If Almirola’s choice boiled down to that of a sure thing – a Cup ride at Ginn – and a very unsure thing – the possibility of a Cup ride at Gibbs in the next year or two – it’s obvious that he, like any ambitious young driver, would opt for the former.

“Ability is nothing without opportunity,” the saying goes.

Almirola has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to race under the tutelage of a great Cup driver in Martin, and he would be foolish not to take it.

If the decision was whether to move to Cup in 2008 or spend another year or two as a development driver in a part-time Busch ride for JGR, I say, go for it!

The bottom line is, a Cup ride in the hand is worth two years in Busch. – Becca Gladden

Has Almirola Lost His Mind?

The news that Almirola is leaving Joe Gibbs and signing on as a part-time Cup driver, sharing duties with Martin in the No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet at Ginn Racing, truly bewilders me. Is the kid suicidal? That’s the first of two things that came to my mind when I heard the decision. The other was simply a rule of thumb for self-preservation, one that a grizzled firefighting instructor at Texas A&M once shared with me and the other assembled trainees: “If the rats are running out of a burning building, you don’t run in.”

Someone needs to share this practical wisdom with Almirola, before he gets burned, BIG TIME!

Burning building, sinking ship or even a more mild “unknown territory” are all appropriate descriptions of the state of affairs at Ginn Racing. Considering that the previously thought to be promising up-and-coming three-car Nextel Cup team has just “let go” two of their highly respected veterans in Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek as well as announcing the suspension of their Busch Series operation, it is fair to say there is reason for concern as to the stability of the organization. And if that isn’t enough chaos to make anyone suspicious of the long-term prospects, speculation has the whole organization either being gobbled up by Dale Earnhardt Inc., or the individual teams sold off piecemeal to more than one established NASCAR team owner.

Granted, the rumor mill is working overtime right now, but what is clear is that Ginn Racing is not a place any employee should feel safe hanging their hat (or helmet). What seems to be occurring instead is one of the biggest owner “busts” in recent NASCAR history. As things begin to unravel, it is becoming more and more apparent that Bobby Ginn, who bought out MB2 Motorsports last year, is writing checks both literally and figuratively that he cannot cash. Though I am not yet prepared to use the term “hustler” to describe Ginn’s ownership activities, it is nonetheless looking to be a highly volatile situation that anyone, including Almirola, would be well advised to steer clear of.

Of course, Almirola has gained widespread attention as a racecar driver not so much for what he has accomplished to date in NASCAR, but what the 23-year-old talented prospect was not allowed to achieve. During the running of the AT&T 250 Busch Series race at Milwaukee on June 23rd, the Joe Gibbs Racing development driver was pulled from the No. 20 Rockwell Automation Chevrolet – replaced instead by Cup sophomore sensation and JGR employee Hamlin. Almirola, upon exiting the racecar, was visibly upset at having been replaced and left the racetrack without comment. In the meantime, Hamlin charged from a lap down in a car clearly superior to any other competitor and recorded a win in front of the team sponsor’s hometown audience – a win that was credited to Almirola per NASCAR rules that dictate the driver that starts a race will be awarded the finishing position that car has at the checkered flag.

During a subsequent teleconference in which Frontstretch participated, Almirola discussed his feelings at length and admitted to having been angry at the driver switch. Clarifying his position, he stated that – at the time – he felt the decision to replace him behind the wheel was an indication the team did not have confidence in his abilities. But Almirola, though still not conceding that he agreed with the decision to remove him from the car, assured reporters that after speaking to owner Joe Gibbs and team manager JD Gibbs, he fully understood the reason for the switch out and conceded that “it wasn’t a decision I would have wanted to make.”

Furthermore, the 23-year-old took the time to express his gratitude for all that JGR had done for him and his career up to that point. Excited then about what was to come, he shared future plans that Gibbs had in the works for him to possibly have a limited number of Nextel Cup starts as early as this season, but most certainly in 2008. He also divulged there was a deal in the works that would put him into the No. 20 Busch car full-time next season. This steady progression has seen Almirola, of Cuban heritage and part of JGR’s Drive to Diversity Program, climb through the racing ranks with seat time in late model stock cars, the Craftsman Truck Series and the Busch Series. By all accounts, this sound and solid plan was sure to give Almirola the best chance of someday succeeding in NASCAR’s top division.

Instead, it now appears that Almirola has chosen to chuck those well made plans to the side in order to “fast track” himself to the Cup Series via the Ginn Racing express – in the process, swapping one of the premier organizations in auto racing for an employer that may or not be around in another month. Considering all the evidence I’ve presented, the only rational explanations I can come up with at this point is either Bobby Ginn is one smooth talker, or Almirola has gone stark raving mad. Either way, Almirola should not run into the burning building. – Tommy Thompson

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