NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2010 NASCAR Driver Review: Aric Almirola

Aric Almirola

2010 Rides: No. 09 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet, No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford
2010 Primary Sponsors: Phoenix Construction (No. 09), Budweiser (No. 9)
2010 Owners: James Finch (No. 09), George Gillett, Richard Petty (No. 9)
2010 Crew Chief: Marc Reno (No. 09), Kenny Francis (No. 9)
2010 Stats: 9 starts, 0 wins, 1 top five, 1 top 10, 0 poles, 4 DNQs, 48th in points

High Point: Homestead-Miami Speedway. Almirola, subbing for the recently dismissed Kasey Kahne, posted a fourth-place finish in his 35th Sprint Cup Series start, running at or neat the front all day for a career best performance. It was the perfect capper to a great resume builder for this young talent: he drove the No. 9 Budweiser Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports to cap a five-race deal that ran through the season finale.

Besides that stellar run at Homestead, you could also make the argument for his High Point being all of 2010. “The Cuban Missile” was on the verge of career crisis just a year ago, but parlayed a part-time 2009 Truck Series arrangement with Billy Ballew Motorsports into a full-time 2010 effort. It’s a partnership which yielded two wins in their first nine races together, as well as a controversial second-place finish at Talladega in the fall. Their strong performance left them just a little short in the final standings to finish second to Todd Bodine for the Truck Series title.

Almirola also had success in NASCAR’s second-tier division; his first outing in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Nationwide Series car produced a third-place finish at Indianapolis Raceway Park in July, then three more top-10s during the next seven starts. Those Truck triumphs and Nationwide audition helped serve as the catalyst to propel Almirola to a full-time 2011 Nationwide ride in the No. 88 JR Motorsports entry.

Perhaps it is a sign of things to come, as in a strange coincidence with Almirola as my driver to review for 2010, his No. 88 GT Vodka transporter and show car were parked outside my office window this past Friday.

Low Point: Homestead-Miami Speedway. After posting his first career top five, just as he begun to get settled into driving the No. 9 RPM Ford, Almirola’s season ended. The other low point could be considered the October Truck race at Talladega, where Kyle Busch went below the yellow line to pass Almirola in the closest finish in Truck Series history, tying the .002-second margin between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003.

There really wasn’t much low point for Almirola in 2010. Yes, there may have been four DNQ incidents early in the year – including the season-opening Daytona 500 – but an unsponsored team trying to make races in this day and age is doing so ostensibly to put it back on the trailer before the first pit stop with a “vibration.” His start-and-park outings with Phoenix Racing were a “means to an end” kind of arrangement, keeping his name and face up front and current in the Cup Series garage.

Summary: Having served in a part-time capacity for his burgeoning career, Almirola finally was provided the opportunity to prove what he can do in all three NASCAR touring series this season. Almirola’s stock car journey has taken a circuitous route, to say the least.

He began his career four years ago at Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series – including an ugly incident in 2007 where he was pulled from the car mid-race while dominating so Denny Hamlin could get in, eventually winning the race in a victory attributed to Almirola’s name. He then split time with Mark Martin at DEI for 2008, the following year being handed the reins to what was, just two years earlier, the most iconic modern-day NASCAR image: the fabled No. 8 car.

Sadly, this lucky break also coincided with an unlucky economic downturn and collapse of the auto industry. His reign with the No. 8 team lasted just seven races before the team folded up and went Dust in the Wind.

Appropriately named for both driver and organization, the No. 09 Phoenix Racing car, which won in April 2009 with Brad Keselowski at Talladega, then became Almirola’s Cup ride to fly into for 2010. But Finch’s longtime sponsorship with Miccosukee Indian Gaming dissolved less than two weeks before the Daytona 500, leaving the owner out of money and his driver with two choices: start-and-park while waiting for funding or spend this Cup season out in the cold.

While not exactly the most competitive outfit, sporting a best finish of 39th with Almirola at the wheel, Phoenix appeared to be the next expansion of Hendrick Motorsports “satellite” teams over the long-term, with either eventual HMS signee Kahne or Martin driving in 2011. Neither option wound up materializing, although Almirola and Kahne’s paths would ironically cross months later towards season’s end as he took over the controls of the No. 9 RPM Ford.

Eventually leaving the Finch ride less than two months into the year, Almirola’s saving grace then became the series that was originally supposed to be an audition stage for up-and-coming drivers: Camping World Trucks. Running more than half the season in 2009 with regular top-five outings, Almirola competed full-time in 2010, finishing runner-up in the championship standings with 11 top fives, 21 top 10s and a pair of wins.

Almirola’s story is actually not that much different than how many drivers used to come up through the ranks: A couple of starts in the Cup Series and Nationwide events, followed by full-time efforts that eventually lead to a premier Cup ride.

2011 Outlook: Next year picks up the next chapter of this story, as the Cuban Missile goes to DefCon: 2 in the Nationwide ranks, his full-time gig now the No. 88 of JR Motorsports as he goes for that season championship. Almirola finally appears to have a solid launch pad beneath him, and the 26-year old driver looks to make 2011 the next stage in his NASCAR deployment driving a full-time Nationwide Series ride with a premier team.

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