After earning a full-time ride for the 2009 season, this was the year Aric Almirola was to step out of the shadows and into the limelight of what’s expected to be a strong Sprint Cup future. Indeed, it’s been a career’s worth of ride sharing for the Florida driver, whose only win in NASCAR’s top-three divisions is a then-Busch Series ride in Milwaukee… one where teammate Denny Hamlin jumped in the car instead to win it after Almirola started the race.
But after a one-year apprenticeship under Mark Martin – one where Almirola drove a limited schedule to prepare for his Sprint Cup transition – he’s finding full-time isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Now 37th in the points with six finishes of 30th or worse in seven starts, his EGR organization is meeting as we speak this Tuesday to determine if the car will even make the trip to Phoenix (Almirola has no primary sponsorship remaining from any company this season). Only time will tell whether the young driver gets a second lease on life; but in the meantime, he stood around chatting with our Tom Bowles last week about the struggles of his 2009 season to date. He also talks about his new race shop, the one thing he can’t live without, and a rather strange fan request… involving a shoe?
Tom Bowles, Frontstretch: I know you’re coming off a pretty disappointing short-track swing. Looking at your career, short tracks have been where you’re been most successful so far in the Cup Series. Have the races at Bristol and Martinsville been more frustrating than most because you know you’ve been strong at these tracks before?
Aric Almirola: Yeah, they are. But I guess it’s one of those deals where it comes with the territory, you know. I think short tracks have definitely been my strong suit, but short tracks are also places where you can get into trouble really easily, even if it’s not of your own doing. So, Bristol was very frustrating. We had a really good car there, and were expecting to run really well, and to get caught up in somebody else’s mess and get involved in a wreck there was very, very frustrating. And then at Martinsville, we’re still looking into what happened. We’re really unsure why we kept blowing right-front tires. I think we ended up having four or five flat right fronts, so we’re not really sure. We could only run about 45-50 laps and then they’d blow out. And we were melting the bead on the inside of the tire. So, we’ve been looking into that to try and figure out what was wrong.
Bowles: Do you think it was an issue specifically related to Goodyear? A lot of people seemed to have that problem, about six or seven in particular on race day.
Almirola: Yeah, I don’t know. Honestly, I didn’t pay attention enough to other people. It seemed to me it might have been a tire issue, but either way we as a team have to do a better job of trying to not have problems. Especially in the position that we’re in right now, we’ve got to do a really good job at dotting all our Is and crossing all our Ts and making sure we don’t have problems so we can capitalize on good runs.
Bowles: Now, I know when everyone wants to talk to you lately, they ask you the same question over… and over… and over again (Almirola’s team is rumored to shut down due to a lack of sponsorship this week). Instead of asking it myself, I just wondered how you deal with that? Is it a distraction for you as you try to prepare for races?
Almirola: Yeah, it’s been a little bit of a distraction. You know, my job is to drive racecars, and as far as the sponsorship and all of that stuff goes, that’s not my job. My job is not to sell sponsors, not to do any of that. My job is strictly to drive a racecar to the best of my ability, and that’s what I’ve been doing.
You know, I’ve tried to deal with it and be thankful for the sponsors that I have already. And I’m very thankful for everything that I’ve been given this year already. Hopefully, we can find a sponsor to be able to keep everything going.
Bowles: Like you’ve said, it’s your job to drive the racecar and the team’s job to get the money. But let’s have you put on your sales hat for a second. I know you’ve had a tough start. But I’m a sponsor coming to you; sell me on why I should pick you up this season. What do you see for this team down the road? What do you see as the potential here with this group that you have in place?
Almirola: Well, I think the biggest thing we have going to our advantage is that we’re a young race team. Especially myself included, but even the guys on the race team. We’ve got a lot of experience, but we’re young. And I think that the hard times that we’ve been going through will only make us a stronger race team if we can get through them. So, I think that’s something – in our sport, you see guys on different teams hop from team to team and stuff like that. And I really believe in my race team, and I really believe if we could get something solid I think we’ll have a great race team. And I think it would be together for a long time.
So, I think that’s the first thing. And the second thing is that we have fast racecars. I mean, where we’re at in the points and what we got going on doesn’t have anything to do whatsoever with our performance. We’ve run in the top 20 every weekend. Our racecars have been fast enough to run in the top 20. But we haven’t finished in the top 20, and when you open the newspaper on Monday morning, that’s what most people look at is the finish.
So, we’ve done a bad job of finishing and capitalizing on the good runs that we’ve had. So, we’re working on that, and we’re trying to make our racecars better. ‘Cause it is hard to run in the mid-20s to top 20, I think you find that the people you race against and stuff is a lot… it seems like everybody is a lot more give and take and it’s a lot more relaxed environment towards the top 10. So, we know that if we can get our racecars better and we can get our racecars faster, and we can get ourselves up and running better, we’ll be better off on any given weekend. I think that’s the biggest thing for us. We’re a young race team. We’re strong. We have fast racecars. And if we can put all those pieces together with a sponsor, we’re going to be doing really good.
Bowles: Of course, it’s a much different situation for you than last year, when you were running only a dozen races and paired with Martin. Now, you’re running full-time with an organization that merged with Chip Ganassi in the offseason. Has everything come together faster than you expected, or right on pace, or…?
Almirola: Everything’s been really fast, which I appreciate that. I’m a racecar driver, so I’m always wanting things to happen fast. And I’m not very patient. Having things happen fast is not necessarily a bad thing… but it has [been]. A lot of things have come together really fast. I went from last year, in the middle of the year I was still going to run a part-time deal this year, to towards the end of the year I found out I was going to run full-time, to finding out we were going to merge with another race team, to now finding out that we need sponsorship dollars to be able to keep going.
Everything has definitely kind of happened really quick.
Bowles: It looks like when you look at EGR this season, Juan Pablo Montoya has been really strong out of the box, and while Martin Truex Jr. has struggled, he’s also won a pole at Daytona. Does it give you confidence to see your teammates doing as well as they are?
Almirola: Absolutely. We know that that’s the thing… and like you said, if I were to try and put my sales cap on for just a minute, is we know we have a good race team. Not only just the group of guys that work on my cars, but the guys that are in the racecar shop and the guys that are in engineering, and the guys that nobody ever sees unless they go to the racecar shop. The guys in body fab and all that stuff.
We have a good race team. Our whole organization is a good organization. So, to be a part of that, number one, is exciting for me. But number two, it makes me believe in my race team. And I have a lot of confidence in our racecars and that we have a good race team, we have good racecars – and we just got to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
Bowles: A quick question about Guitar Hero. How different is it to plug a game you actually like?
Almirola: It’s awesome! And that’s what I’ve told the people at Activision with Guitar Hero is that it is so cool to have a sponsor that you can talk up or plug and not feel cheesy about it. Because you really believe in the product and you really use the product. There are so many sponsors that you try and plug or you try and talk up, and you feel so cheesy because you don’t really use the product or you don’t really care. But I sincerely care about the product. I play it all the time, I love the game.
I have not beaten expert yet, though. I can play some things on hard… I can play the guitar on hard and some stuff. The drums are a little more difficult for me. But no, I love the game. It’s so easy to promote it and so easy to plug it because it’s something I truly believe in and something I love to play.
Bowles: If you could judge what type of driver you are, what would you say?
Almirola: Aggressive. I feel like I’m pretty aggressive.
Bowles: If you weren’t racing, what do you think you’d be doing?
Almirola: I don’t know. I don’t have a plan B. From the time I was in college… I was working on a racecar. If I was driving a racecar, we’d be working on a racecar.
Bowles: What’s the strangest request you’ve had from a fan to ask them to sign?
Almirola: Well, it’s not too terribly strange, but somebody walked up and wanted me to sign their shoe. I thought that was pretty weird. They were wearing the shoe, and took it off and wanted me to sign the top of it!
Bowles: What’s the favorite thing you’ve bought this year?
Almirola: I got a racecar shop in Mooresville now I spend a lot of time at. I really enjoy having that. I just got a shop that I tinker in, and I go in there and sit down and take two pieces of metal and start welding them for fun. Or whatever, just tinker… it really helps clear my mind, and if I’m frustrated about something or pissed off about something I can go there and get away.
Bowles: What’s the one thing you couldn’t live without?
Almirola: Hmm… water?