Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Aric Almirola’s Grind to the Top

Last weekend, months of speculation about Aric Almirola’s future in NASCAR came to a definitive end. Almirola posted on X on Saturday, Oct. 28, indicating that he was stepping away from Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 10 car.

Originally, Almirola had said that 2022 would be his last year competing in NASCAR, but he decided midway through that season to come back at least one more year. Now, it looks like Almirola will be hanging up his helmet for sure, at least full-time.

It is not surprising that Almirola is ready to have more free time on Sundays. He has often spoken about his commitment to his family and wanting to be present in his kids’ lives.

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Aric Almirola Departing SHR After 2023

From a racing standpoint, 2023 has been brutal for Almirola. It’s his worst season since joining SHR, with only two top fives and five top 10s to his name. He had a great run at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, leading 66 laps until getting passed by Ryan Blaney with 23 to go. But for a driver and team that became accustomed to reaching the playoffs in their first four years together, scraping out the occasional top five is small comfort.

The No. 10 team’s downward slide over the last few years will make Almirola’s departure a quiet affair. Couple that with SHR teammate Kevin Harvick, also running his last race this week, and you have to wonder if the NBC team will even give Almirola a mention during Sunday’s broadcast at Phoenix Raceway.

Such an exit feels unfair for Almirola. The difficulties that he and SHR have experienced over the last few years should not take away from what he accomplished in his NASCAR career. Those who have followed Almirola for nearly two decades will remember the difficult road he took to get established in the NASCAR Cup Series, and some odd circumstances he faced along the way.   

Many in the NASCAR world first came to know Almirola from his first official, yet controversial, victory in NASCAR’s second-tier series. In June 2007, while Almirola was a development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, he qualified on the pole for a race at the Milwaukee Mile. The team’s intent was to have Denny Hamlin run the race, but Hamlin was delayed in getting to the track from Sonoma Raceway, where the Cup Series was competing the same weekend.

The helicopter transporting Hamlin to Milwaukee could not land at the track in time, finding the helipad blocked by parked cars. As Hamlin landed at a local airport and hurried back to the track, Almirola was forced start the race. He led the first 43 laps and held station in the top five until a caution on lap 58.

By that point, Hamlin made it to the track, and JGR, likely influenced by sponsor Rockwell Automation, decided to have him replace Almirola. Hamlin took over and captured the checkered flag, but Almirola received credit for the victory since he started the race. Even so, Almirola was rightfully disappointed by how things unfolded.

Although he got the win, points, and prize money, he left the track after getting pulled and did not celebrate with the team post-race. The whole experience soured Almirola’s relationship with JGR, and he did not return to the team after 2007.

The trouble was that he did not have a clear path forward. Beginning late in the 2007 season, he split a Dale Earnhardt Inc. ride in the Cup Series with Mark Martin. When Martin went to Hendrick Motorsports in 2009, Almirola was named the full-time driver of the No. 8. However, the merger of DEI with Chip Ganassi Racing threw a wrench into those plans. Just seven races into the year, and with only one finish better than 30th, the No. 8 team closed due to a lack of sponsorship. Almirola retreated to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and finished out the year racing for Billy Ballew’s team.

It would have been easy at that point to write off Almirola. He seemed destined to be a footnote in NASCAR history, the obscure winner of the race at Milwaukee that Hamlin finished. Yet Almirola never stopped grinding.

In 2010, he won two Truck Series races with Ballew and began building his career back. He ran his first races with Richard Petty Motorsports that year as a late-season replacement for Kasey Kahne. The following year, he returned to the second-tier series with JR Motorsports. But the real turning point came in 2012 when Almirola went to RPM to race the No. 43 car with Smithfield as the primary sponsor. Over the next six years, he built a strong partnership with Smithfield and finally established himself as a Cup Series driver.

Naturally, there were some highs and lows during Almirola’s time at RPM. He showed a knack for superspeedway racing and scored a long-awaited first Cup Series win at Daytona International Speedway in 2014. For the next year and a half, the No. 43 team seemed to be improving week-to-week. But by 2016, RPM was struggling again.

Things got even worse the following year when Almirola suffered a back injury in a nasty crash at Kansas Speedway. Once again, his future was in doubt, but this time it was not a question of whether Almirola should be in the Cup Series, but what he could do with a stronger team.

Enter Stewart-Haas.

Almirola made the jump to the No. 10 in 2018, taking Smithfield with him. He nearly won his first race with the team, getting punted out of the lead by Austin Dillon on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Yet out of that disappointment grew the best season Almirola ever had. Prior to 2018, he had never scored more than seven top 10s in a single season, and his career-best average finish was 17.9. In 2018, Almirola earned 17 top 10s, an average finish of 12.8, finished fifth in overall points, and scored his second career win at Talladega Superspeedway. Clearly, the grinding paid off.

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In more recent years, Almirola’s fortunes have risen and fallen with SHR as a whole. Although he did not win a race in 2019 or 2020, Almirola made the playoffs in both seasons. Everything since 2020 has been noticeably worse, though he did manage one more win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and a final playoff appearance in 2021. The malaise that has affected SHR for the last three years has undoubtedly hurt his performance. But as Almirola reminded everyone on Sunday, he is still capable of the occasional surprise.

The knock on Almirola over the last few seasons is that he might have been dismissed from SHR if not for his loyal sponsor funding his seat. While those questions are understandable, Almirola’s legacy should not be that of a pay driver who overstayed his welcome. He is a multi-race winner in the Cup Series and a winner in all three of NASCAR’s national touring divisions. Those accomplishments are nothing to scoff at, especially since he came so close to flaming out of NASCAR in his early years.

Almirola’s career is a testament to perseverance, handling adversity with grace, and the importance of strong relationships made along the way. If this is the end of his run in NASCAR, he has absolutely earned a respectful send-off, and a future to focus on family.

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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RCFX1

Plenty of opportunities out there. If you’re not with the right team, you won’t win. There are other series that have a lighter schedule.

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