Aric Almirola’s biggest accomplishment to date is winning a race he didn’t actually win.
The former Joe Gibbs Racing developmental driver won the pole for a Nationwide race at Milwaukee in 2007, and started the race only to have to give up his seat on lap 59 when Denny Hamlin finally arrived at the track. Almirola was running third at the time, but he was thrown to the side like last week’s garbage because Rockwell Automation wanted a Sprint Cup star in its car. Hamlin took over and drove from the back to Victory Lane.
Hamlin celebrated while Almirola was credited with his first and only Nationwide win. It might’ve been the first time in history a driver was embarrassed to have won a race.
“Hey Aric, thanks for those 59 laps. Here’s the winner’s trophy.”
And that night in 2007 is still what Almirola is most known for. He left Gibbs, one of the top developmental programs around, about a month later (I wonder why) and signed with a less stable Dale Earnhardt Inc. He ran five Sprint Cup races in 2007 with DEI and posted a best finish of 26th. In 2008, Almirola got the raw end of the deal again when Mark Martin joined the organization. Martin took Almirola’s seat for 24 of the 36 races with the thought that Almirola would take over full-time when Martin retired.
Yeah, Mark Martin retire. He’ll still be racing in 2035.
Martin left for Hendrick Motorsports in 2009, but without the Sprint Cup star in the seat, DEI had trouble gathering sponsorship dollars for Almirola, who had one top 10 in 12 races the year before. The team folded and Aric was out on his butt once again.
Almirola grabbed a Nationwide ride with Key Motorsports, which is like the Bermuda Triangle of Nationwide rides. It’s often the last spot drivers go before they are never heard from again. Are you out there Scott Wimmer? Erik Darnell can you hear me?
Luckily for Almirola, he also hitched on with Billy Ballew Motorsports in the truck series for 16 races in 2009 and a full schedule in 2010. His two wins and second-place showing in the points in 2010 are what kept him from falling out of NASCAR altogether. It also attracted the attention of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who saw Almirola as a guy who just hadn’t caught the right break.
Junior finally gave it to him, a full-time ride in the No. 88 Nationwide car in 2011. Almirola finished fourth in points, but was disappointing overall, collecting only seven top fives in 34 races. He didn’t challenge for any wins in a series that had 10-15 competitive cars each week.
For some reason, Richard Petty Motorsports still came calling with a Sprint Cup offer. It looked like a mistake at the time, and a year in the seat pretty much confirmed that. In 2011, A.J. Allmendinger posted 10 top 10s and finished 15th in the standings. One year later, Almirola had four top 10s and placed 20th in the same No. 43.
But after living outside of the top 20 for most of 2012, Almirola only finished outside the top 20 twice in the final 10 races after Todd Parrott took over as his crew chief. Teammate Marcos Ambrose, who had been running really well with Parrott before the Chase, saw his results freefall once Parrott left.
Richard Petty Motorsports, which stayed in the Ford camp, but lost its technical backing, decided to retain both drivers for 2013. That patience with Almirola has paid off because in 2013, he finally looks like a Sprint Cup driver. The same guy who put up four top 10s all of last year has four straight top 10s as the series heads to Darlington.
He’s also seventh in the Sprint Cup standings.
Almirola’s work ethic and commitment has never been in question, but throughout his rocky journey, whether he could actually get it done behind the wheel was in question. Physically, Almirola can compete with anyone on the circuit, even friends Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne. Almirola bikes from the Atlantic to the Pacific and scales at least two mountains every morning before the race — my point is, he works at it.
“Last year, I was skeptical and unsure going into the season just about everything —about the demands of the season and demands of racing on Sunday,” Almirola told Sporting News in January. “(Now) I’m fully aware of how it all works, how my season is going to go. I’ve been to every racetrack now in a Cup car so I’m not going to show up anywhere blind. Every time I unload, I feel like I’m going to have a better understanding of what I’m going to need to go fast at each racetrack.”
And much like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, Almirola crawled through a river of (crap) and came out clean on the other side. He went from nearly being out of NASCAR completely to competing for a spot in the Sprint Cup playoffs.
Until he wins a race in Sprint Cup though, he’ll be best known for the race he didn’t win, but was given credit for. In 2013, Almirola has his best chance to make people forget that moment and remember something else.