ARIC ALMIROLA First and Goal at Las Vegas HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (March 1, 2007) -- Three years ago, Aric Almirola was getting ready for a full season of late model stock car racing at the .4-mile Ace Speedway in Altamahaw, N.C. Recently named...
First and Goal at Las Vegas
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (March 1, 2007) -- Three years ago, Aric Almirola was getting ready for a full season of late model stock car racing at the .4-mile Ace Speedway in Altamahaw, N.C. Recently named to Joe Gibbs Racing's (JGR) driver development program via the diversity initiative created by JGR and the late Reggie White, Almirola was on the doorstep of opportunity.
After scoring two wins, six top-fives and 15 top-10s in 2004, Almirola began climbing the NASCAR ladder. The Tampa, Fla., native of Cuban descent traversed the Southeast in 2005 competing in regional late model races, and by the end of the year, was running a limited schedule in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Two top-10 finishes in four Truck Series starts led to a full-time Truck Series ride and a nine-race Busch Series schedule in 2006.
The promise Almirola showed in 2004 continued in 2006, which led JGR officials to give him a slate of 18 Busch Series races and four Nextel Cup races in 2007.
That first Nextel Cup race comes at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where on March 9 Almirola will attempt to qualify the No. 80 Joe Gibbs Driven Chevrolet for the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400.
If recent history is any indication, Almirola will be part of the 43-car field. After all, his first Busch Series race of the year started quite well, as Almirola scored his second career pole in just his 10th Busch Series race when he set the fastest time in qualifying for the season-opener at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
Almirola went on to log a respectable top-20 finish in the 120-lap race, something he couldn't do after winning his first pole last year at The Milwaukee Mile. There, Almirola was filling in for regular driver Denny Hamlin in practice and qualifying, as Hamlin was commuting from the Nextel Cup race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. When Almirola won the pole, it was a Pyrrhic victory, for Hamlin was the one tabbed for the race, something he did quite admirably, as he drove the No. 20 car to a strong second-place finish on the setup crafted by Almirola and crew chief Dave Rogers.
Almirola is no longer the setup man at JGR. He's the future. And to better understand Almirola's future, one must look at his past.
After being introduced to racing by his grandfather, Sam Rodriguez, Almirola wanted to be more than just a spectator. He began racing go-karts when he was eight, and after winning many races and local titles in and around his home state of Florida, he took his talent to the national karting scene in 1998. He quickly made his presence known, qualifying on the pole for the World Karting Association Grand Nationals at Daytona Beach Municipal Stadium before finishing fourth in the season-ending point standings.
At 16, Almirola graduated to open-wheel modifieds -- 2,750-pound race cars that put out over 700 horsepower. In 2000 he won the rookie of the year title in two separate modified divisions -- Florida Modified and SARA (Southern Automobile Racing Association) Modified, while garnering his first career win in the Joslin Memorial 100 at Orlando (Fla.) Speedworld, beating the top drivers in Florida.
In March 2002, Almirola advanced from open-wheel modifieds to the Sunbelt Super Late Model Division, where he finished runner-up in the rookie of year standings. Almirola continued in that division in 2003, winning three poles at USA Speedway in Lakeland, Fla., two poles at New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway and one pole at Bronson (Fla.) Speedway.
The rest, as they say, is history. After beating out nearly 200 applicants, Almirola caught his break with JGR's diversity program in 2004.
With many opportunities successfully logged and completed now behind him, Almirola gears up for his toughest challenge yet -- making the starting field of a Nextel Cup race.
Aric Almirola -- driver of the No. 80 Joe Gibbs Driven Chevrolet at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Three years ago you were running late models. Come Las Vegas, you're going to make your first Nextel Cup start. Are you surprised at how quickly this is happening, or has your ascent up the racing ladder gone the way you thought it would?
"Definitely I'm surprised. Three years ago I was racing late models. To all of a sudden be making my first Cup start with only 10 Busch Series races under my belt, it's pretty fast. Everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing obviously believes in me or else they wouldn't be putting me in this situation. That definitely gives me a lot of confidence and it's a good feeling to know that everybody supports me 100 percent."
All of the pressure is on qualifying. Once it's over and you're presumably in the race, will you simply enjoy the moment?
"Yes. It'll definitely be exciting trying to qualify for my first ever Cup race, but it'll definitely be disappointing if we don't make it. Everybody's going there with the intention of making the race, and I don't think we should expect any less."
How much track time have you had at Las Vegas Motor Speedway? Did you test both the Cup and the Busch car?
"Yes, I got quite a bit of track time in both. I'm really looking forward to going back to Las Vegas for the race. There's no telling how much track time we'll get when we go back, just because of how long the tech inspection procedures will be. I think we have a really good team and we have really good equipment, so I don't think there's any doubt in anybody's mind that we have as good of a chance as anybody else to make the race."
What are your thoughts on the track?
"I love the track. I'm not exactly tickled to death with the tire they're bringing, but I love the track. The track's extremely fast. I think they did a really good job with it. It's bumpy. It's rough, but that builds character. That's just part of it. I think it's neat and it makes Vegas, Vegas. I do wish they would bring a tire that's a little more racy. We're definitely on some hard tires out there. I think practice is going to be very critical for us, and if we get all the things in that we want to get in before qualifying, I think we'll be ok."
Since the track has been reconfigured, do you think it will help you since everyone will be on the same footing?
"Yes, but these guys are so good. These guys are the best in the business for a reason. It doesn't matter where we go. It doesn't matter if it's a new track or a reconfigured one or what. The guys that are really good and the teams that are really good always rise to the top. Experience is a big key, more so than the track being newly configured, so I really don't think that's a big advantage."
How big of a help is it to have already run at big tracks like Michigan, both in a Truck and in a Busch car? Even though those vehicles are different, did it give you the confidence you needed when you tested at Las Vegas in a Cup car?
"Oh yeah, but the Cup car is a totally different animal. The Truck and Busch car just have a lot of downforce built into them. The Busch car has a really big spoiler, and it's the same with the Truck. They just have a lot of downforce and they're really secure. The Cup car, on the other hand, is not so secure. The guys -- Wally Brown (co-crew chief) and everybody that's on that team -- did a really good job working the entire test at getting me comfortable, and on the second day we were pretty fast. I think we have a really good shot at making the race, and that's our goal -- to go and make the race. Once we do that, the race will take care of itself. It'll actually be kind of fun if we make the race because the race is going to be no pressure compared to qualifying. I'm sure everybody will be really loose for the race, so we can just go out and have a good time and log all the laps and learn as much as we can."
It seems no matter what kind of background one comes from, in order for a driver to get noticed, you've got to get a break. Would you consider being named into JGR's diversity program in 2004 the break you needed to excel within NASCAR?
"Yes, for sure I think that was my opportunity. Everybody gets their chance or their break, and that was mine. Now it's up to me to take it and run with it. You always get the people, the naysayers, but the fact of the matter is racing is a sport just like any other sport, and you have to perform. As long as I continue to perform, the sky's the limit. The day that doesn't happen -- diversity program or not -- it's not going to help me any then. I've just got to keep doing the right things and running well. The rest will take care of itself."
Have you kept in touch with the people you raced with back in Florida? What is their reaction to your success?
"I've kept in touch with them. Everybody's extremely excited. When I was down in Daytona, I got to go hang out at New Smyrna a few nights and see everybody that I used to race late models with. That was really cool. I got to see a bunch of my old buddies and stuff like that. It's just really neat to walk around where everybody remembers you and knows who you are from seeing you on TV, and to be able to go talk to them and to have every single one of them tell you they're rooting for you. They all say it's really cool to see someone from around here make it. I have a big fan base back in Florida, especially with all of the folks I used to race with."