Race Weekend Central

Eyes on Xfinity: Is Aric Almirola Paving the Way?

How many races can Aric Almirola win this year?

In his 16-year NASCAR Cup Series career, Almirola was a respected driver, but he only managed to win three of 460 points-paying races he started.

In the NASCAR Xfinity Series, he’s now won two of his last five races going back to his surprise win last season at Sonoma Raceway. His schedule will include starts in the Joe Gibbs Racing Nos. 19 and 20. The No. 20 car was driven by John Hunter Nemechek last season, and it went to victory lane seven times.

Almirola isn’t running the full Xfinity schedule, and we haven’t covered him much in this column. We’ve focused more on the drivers who will compete for the championship. But questions are emerging. What is Almirola’s ceiling this year? What might he do next year? Looking beyond the 40-year-old Florida native, what current Cup Series drivers could benefit from a step down to Xfinity competition?

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Back in February, it was reported that Almirola would run 15 to 16 races for Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s been very competitive in his starts so far, with the win at Martinsville Speedway coming right after a runner-up finish at Richmond Raceway. Between those two races, Almirola led a total of 243 laps. Could he win five races this season? It seems possible. If so, he will be in the running to be the winningest driver in the series despite running only about half of the races. That would also be more wins than he had in his entire Cup career.

What would that mean for Almirola moving forward? After the Martinsville victory, the Tampa, Florida native reflected on his situation.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you Coach for calling me and giving me this opportunity to come and have some fun and still scratch the itch of racing but still get to spend a lot of time with my family.”

It would seem at his age, he is not overly interested in returning to a full schedule. Those weekends at home with his family seem really important to him. But he looks like a great cultural fit at JGR, and it would not be surprising to see him run several years in this capacity, keeping some weekends at home with family while being able to run competitively at some of his favorite tracks. But I can’t completely rule out a full-time Xfinity effort next season or beyond.

As great as those weekends home must be, Almirola is a racer. If he does well enough this season to feel like he could win a championship, and the offer is on the table, how tempting would that be? Elliott Sadler is a good example of a mediocre Cup career that found new life in Xfinity. Justin Allgaier has settled into a similar place. But why can’t there be more like him? Could Almirola be a better version of Sadler?

For a driver whose Cup Series legacy may have fallen short of what he hoped for, opportunities to rack up wins in Xfinity could be a great opportunity to polish up the career resume and also give his children a chance to see him running up front and winning races. His success will strengthen his reputation and likely present opportunities to work within the sport for years to come.

I can think of a few Cup Series drivers who would benefit from following Almirola’s lead and stepping down to Xfinity, even if for different reasons.

Harrison Burton comes to mind. The young driver has just one top five and four top 10s in his 81 Cup starts. How much has his confidence taken a hit since he won four Xfinity races in 2020? Burton is still only 23 years old. We’ve seen Nemechek take a step down to show he could win races after a rushed climb to Cup didn’t go well, and now JHN is back in Cup. His gamble paid off. Could Burton follow a similar path?

What about Corey LaJoie? You know the old saying, ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ LaJoie’s father, Randy LaJoie, is a 15-time Xfinity race winner and two-time series champion. Going down and winning races in Xfinity would be a continuation of a family tradition.

LaJoie should rightfully get a lot of credit for helping to build up Spire Motorsports during its lean years, and he signed a multi-year extension with the team last summer. But Spire now has younger drivers on its roster that may have a higher ceiling: Carson Hocevar and Zane Smith. Right now, Hocevar is three places higher than LaJoie in points. In 244 Cup starts, LaJoie remains winless. Going down to Xfinity could give him a much better shot to win.

Speaking of LaJoie’s teammate Smith, did he go up to Cup too quickly? He is running for Spire Motorsports in partnership with Trackhouse Racing. It’s early in his rookie year, but he sits last in points of all drivers to have run all the races. Smith went straight from full-time in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series to Cup. How long will his confidence remain intact if his early season woes continue? Smith is still only 25 years old. Could going down to Xfinity and racing for a Championship be a good move?

With Shane van Gisbergen likely headed to Cup next year, could he land at Spire? Trackhouse only has two charters as of now. Ross Chastain probably isn’t going anywhere and Daniel Suarez just won a race and locked himself into the playoffs. Trackhouse already had to partner up with Spire to field Smith, so where does SVG go and who could be the odd man out? Whoever it is, a Xfinity ride could be a likely landing spot.

Austin Dillon is a former Xfinity champion. He’s coming off a 29th-place points result in 2023 and sits 31st as of this writing. Meanwhile, his corporate teammate Austin Hill continues to do well in Xfinity, brings funding, and is about four years younger than Dillon. How much longer does Dillon want to run 30th for his grandfather’s team? If Hill isn’t offered a Cup ride soon, Richard Childress Racing could lose him like they’ve lost other talented drivers in recent years. Dillon would be a great candidate to follow Almirola’s path.

There are other drivers who could benefit from such a move. Ryan Preece, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Cindric and others come to mind.

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But other than no better available options, why would a driver want to step down? We’ve already talked about Almirola’s desire to have more weekends at home. We’ve talked about an easier path to winning. Don’t forget about the upcoming CW television deal set to begin next year.

The CW deal will reportedly bring a big increase of funding into the Xfinity Series compared to the current deal. This could make driving in the series more lucrative. It could also mean a driver would have a lesser requirement for bringing their own sponsorship to get a ride. Plus, all races will be available to watch for free by almost all households in the United States via over-the-air TV and streaming on the CW app. Additional money, additional eyeballs, additional reasons to feel good about racing on Saturdays.

The Xfinity Series has been known as the series where names are made. That will continue. Young drivers rising up the ranks are likely to spend some time in Xfinity even if they are destined for the promised land of the Cup Series. At times, Xfinity has suffered from a perceived lack of respect in the racing, owed partially to the younger and more inexperienced drivers. Seeing more Cup veterans like Almirola come to the series will raise the stakes for those trying to climb the ladder, and should also lead to a higher level of respect on track.

If winning is the most important thing, a driver could run full-time and go for the championship. If it’s just being home more often and having a chance to run up front, take the Almirola path. The young talent rising up to Cup will continue, and some of the veterans will be faced with choices to drive slower cars in Cup or run up front in Xfinity.

It’s great to see Almirola having a successful career renaissance. Time will tell if — or how many — others embrace the trail he is blazing.

About the author

Steve Leffew joined Frontstretch in 2023, and covers the Xfinity Series. He resides in Wisconsin and has been a NASCAR fan as long as he can remember. He has served honorably in the United States Air Force and works during the week as a Real Estate Lender.

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There are several that should not be in Cup. Most are legacy drivers, as JHN and Harrison Burton. But there are others.
Cup is TOUGH and everyone is on a more level field. Not like in Xfinity where one car or car owner may provide superior equipment.
They work HARD just to finish in the top 25.
There are no good answers.

Kevin in SoCal

I was expecting you to mention AJ Allmendinger, too.

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