In the current climate of funded drivers and retreating sponsorship dollars, it’s very uncommon for a young driver without his own money to get a second chance. What we are seeing with Aric Almirola though, goes against all of that. JR Motorsports announced on Wednesday that Almirola had signed a multi-year agreement to drive the team’s #88 car in the Nationwide Series.
After getting high profile gigs at Joe Gibbs Racing, Ginn Racing, Dale Earnhardt Inc., and finally Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, it appeared Almirola had washed out. Once at EGR, his #8 team was shut down only seven races into the 2009 season due to lack of funding. Through those seven races however, Almirola hadn’t exactly set the world on fire. His average finish was 32.8 and his best finish was a 21st at Atlanta. Before that, Almirola was best known for his Nationwide Series “win” at Milwaukee in which he started the race, but was pulled part way through and replaced by Denny Hamlin who went on to score the victory.
After leaving EGR in 2009, Almirola spent the rest of the season making sporadic starts for Phoenix Racing, Key Motorsports, Smith Ganassi Racing, and Billy Ballew Motorsports across all three major NASCAR series. He was one of a small group of drivers who turned to some of the lower seriesto advance his career and get more experience. And as it turned out, the 16 starts Almirola made for Billy Ballew in which he led 98 laps and had six top five finishes, would turn into a full time Truck Series ride for the 2010 season.
Fast forward to this season, Almirola has two Truck Series wins and sits second in the Truck Series points. His strong CWTS runs led to him being the backup driver for both Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon while they were on baby watch, plus he was given the chance to run JRM’s #88 at ORP. Almirola didn’t disappoint there either, finishing third behind Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. All of this led up to JRM signing Almirola for the 2011 season and beyond.
Before this deal came about, we’d heard (along with others) that Almirola was a candidate for some Cup organizations, including Richard Petty Motorsports. Almirola even admitted to ESPN that he’d been offered Cup deals (see the link above). With that said, I think it’s interesting that he decided to take the Nationwide deal with JRM. It would seem that in a situation like Almirola’s, especially with his stock being high, that he would have wanted to capitalize fully and take a Cup deal. Instead, he will continue to have to prove himself and his ability in the NNS with JRM.
If Almirola continues to progress, and has continued success in the future, this should help serve as a lesson to owners about driver development. Instead of rushing these kids along, and giving them a season or two to prove themselves, why not keep them in lower series longer? Let them develop their skills, then bring them along slowly. Almirola is extremely lucky that he’s been given the chances to show that he can improve, and hopefully he will parlay those chances into more success on the track.