Race Weekend Central

2008 NASCAR Driver Review: Aric Almirola

Aric Almirola

2008 Ride: No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet
2008 Primary Sponsor: U.S. Army
2008 Owner: Teresa Earnhardt
2008 Crew Chief: Tony Gibson
2008 Stats: 12 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 1 top 10, 42nd in points

High Point: Splitting time with veteran driver Mark Martin helped provide Aric Almirola with the tutor of tutors and accelerated his learning curve exponentially. Having made five starts in 2007 in the Ginn Racing/DEI No. 01 Chevrolet, his best Cup run heading into the season was a 26th at Phoenix. But in 2008, Almirola got out of the gates fast this spring, posting a career best eighth-place run at Bristol in his first race with the No. 8.

His next drive a week later at Martinsville resulted in a third-place qualifying effort; he would then run up front for the early stages of the event until a lap 59 incident started the unraveling of what would have been a very productive day. Instead, it culminated in engine failure, relegating him to a 42nd-place finish.

Almirola would qualify third again at Talladega in the fall, leading three laps, (all of these “threes” seem a bit ironic considering what team he is driving for…), and led another 53 laps the following week again at Martinsville. It served notice that what he needed more than anything was a complete season behind the wheel, as well as an opportunity to mesh with his own team on a week-to-week basis.

Low Point: The strong qualifying run at Martinsville in April, where Almirola started third, was promptly undone by his own doing – although it was the result of little more than a typical Martinsville jam-up. Then, Almirola possibly had a piece to contend with at Talladega, but was not where he needed to be at the end for himself or for teammate Regan Smith, who could have used a friend towards the end of that controversial finish.

An additional low point came after the season, when crew chief Tony Gibson left DEI to become Ryan Newman’s pit boss for 2009. That left Almirola with his own car, but in need of a new crew chief and sponsor. Oh well, at least he has a number… for now.

Summary: It would be most unfair to pin a low point on Almirola, considering he is still essentially a rookie – and a part-time rookie driver at that. His starts were often back-to-back affairs coming weeks apart from one another this season, happening at different styles of racetracks to adapt to each time. As hard as it is to build team chemistry and continuity with a veteran driving every week, it has to be that much more difficult for an fill-in, inexperienced youngster looking for seat time.

However, Almirola has performed admirably when his number has been called, despite being little more than Martin’s substitute over his two-year Cup career. Driving somebody else’s car is always a challenge, but this guy has been doing just that.

Almirola is one driver who truly deserves his own ride and the focus of an organization on a weekly basis. Images abound of the former Joe Gibbs Racing wheelman walking dejectedly back to his hauler following the bizarre driver exchange between he and Denny Hamlin at the Milwaukee Nationwide race in 2007. In that event, he was told to exit his car by JGR management after winning the pole and leading the race, yielding instead to Hamlin, who showed up late due to a conflicting schedule with his Cup car in Sonoma, Calif.

While nothing of that magnitude has happened in his Sprint Cup Series efforts, Almirola was never cleared of other’s shadows until being given the DEI ride full-time at the end of the 2008 season.

Team Ranking: With both Martin and Almirola pulling driving chores in the No. 8 DEI Chevrolet, they combined to post an impressive 14th-place finish in the owner standings. A near-miss win at Phoenix, with Almirola sitting atop the pit box, was the team highlight and lowlight; the young driver had a front row seat to see that his car was fast enough to win, but botched fuel mileage and some fouled pit stops trumped any sort of competitive advantage the car may have had.

Almirola wound up finishing 42nd in the driver standings in his own right; it was a solid achievement, especially considering there were many other drivers with more starts, such as two-time champion Terry Labonte and fan favorite Kyle Petty, who finished behind him. It’s hard to say where Almirola lands in the pecking order of his own team now, however; DEI is in the process of merging with Chip Ganassi Racing, and sponsor and driver alignments are still being finalized.

Off-Track News: Almost all of the off-track news affecting Almirola concerned not him but the four-car organization he drives for. It would not be an exaggeration to say that DEI continues to spiral downward, with the No. 01 car sponsorless for the majority of the season and Paul Menard taking his father’s sponsorship with him to Yates Racing and Ford. Martin Truex Jr. is now the face of this organization, which has seen the comings and goings of two major names and sponsors in the last two seasons with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin leaving the fold – as well as Budweiser and the U.S. Army.

Currently, DEI is embroiled in a lawsuit with Hendrick Motorsports to the tune of $1.5 million stemming from an engine leasing agreement that went a little sideways when the now-No. 8 car was the then-No. 01 Ginn Racing machine. While this is likely a trivial matter that will be settled shortly, it is more bad press for an organization that is the equivalent of a leper in biblical times. Nobody seems to wants to touch DEI right now, and who can blame them?

Just look at the current issues facing this organization. There’s a distinct absence of leadership provided by an absentee owner, and a lack of clear direction that has led them to join forces with CGR – a team that clearly has its own struggles and hardships to deal with. Things have gotten so rough, the cynic on the outside may see that move as nothing more a few more hands on deck to help bail out some water. It’s hard to believe this is the same team that just a few short years ago was contending for championships and winning races with regularity.

While DEI’s director Max Siegel tries desperately to pull this company out of a skid, he himself may be bracing for the impact as DEI is sent careening backwards into the wall of economic reality – taking their prized prospect Almirola with them.

2009 Outlook: Almirola seems to finally have the ability to build his own legacy, as he will now be the official driver of the iconic No. 8 DEI Chevrolet. The question remains, however, who will the sponsor be? These harsh economic times are wrecking havoc on all teams, particularly ones who do not have an established big-time driver’s name scrawled on the roof rails of their race car.

As a result, this could be one of the unfortunate hard-luck headlines for 2009. While his teammate Smith spent the majority of 2008 driving with the DEI corporate crest emblazoned on his hood, the same fate could also befall Almirola. Smith has stated recently that he hasn’t heard anything regarding having a ride or a sponsor for the coming season, and there have yet to be any sponsorship announcements made regarding Almirola.

It is hard to imagine the No. 8 car without a financial backer, after having essentially been the face of the sport for the better part of this millennium – but that’s where things are at. At best, it has been rumored the No. 8 car would receive Wrigley’s 12-race sponsorship as the result of a merger with Chip Ganassi.

Much like anything surrounding our economy in these tumultuous times, Almirola’s plight is a confusing situation to even the most studied member of the media. The No. 42 “Ganassi” car has half a season of sponsorship, while the No. 41 “Ganassi” car has a full season’s worth with Target – but no driver selected.

Meanwhile, the No. 8 car has the most potential and is teetering on the brink of success; but to date, has had few takers financially, forcing the possibility Almirola may even be sitting on the sidelines for a handful of races this season. Even if he gets to run all 36 events, the youngster will have to do so with a new team, as crew chief Tony Gibson and VP of Competition Bobby Hutchens are leaving to join Newman’s new Stewart-Haas No. 39 effort.

It has seemingly been a one step forward/two steps back affair for Almirola since he came to NASCAR, and this is yet another instance of that. Why Arthur Murray Dance Studios has not stepped forward to sponsor him remains a mystery.

Quote: “Having a partner like Chip who is heavily involved on the competition side of the business is an ideal situation for DEI… He has a long history of managing championship teams in the IndyCar and Rolex Grand-Am Series, and I share his passion and goals of winning races and ultimately championships in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. I think this is a case where we are stronger together than we are apart.” – Aric Almirola on the merger of Dale Earnhardt Inc., and Chip Ganassi Racing

2007 Frontstretch Grade: N/A
2008 Grade: C

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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