Aric Almirola had already achieved the career-building steps he had hoped for before arriving at Homestead-Miami Speedway for NASCAR's season-ending weekend. Almirola's fourth place finish in the Sprint Cup race was icing on the cake, but it also reinforced his position as a top prospect for a full-time Cup deal with a team serious about running at the front in 2012 or 2013.
Almirola, 26, isn't in a hurry. He wants it to be the right opportunity, which is why he passed on chances to return to Cup with smaller teams to sign a multi-year agreement with JR Motorsports, owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick, to drive full time in the Nationwide Series next year.
Stability and the chance to win races was the priority for Almirola in joining JR Motorsports. He's been driving in NASCAR's national series since 2005, but has had only two full seasons, in 2006 and 2010 in the Camping World Truck Series. Almirola has 39 starts in Nationwide and 35 in Cup driving for many teams. He understands the value of developing his talent over a full season with a team capable of winning races.
The past two seasons have been a roller coaster ride for Almirola. He started 2009 in Cup in the No. 8 at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and ran the opening seven races before funding ran out. It was supposed to be Almirola's first full season in Cup and he found himself unemployed in early April.
Almirola didn't race for two months. "It wasn't fun," he said last year. "It wasn't good."
Billy Ballew, owner of a two-truck operation then featuring Kyle Busch in the Camping World Truck Series, called and offered Almirola a chance to drive at Texas. It meant a return to the minor leagues, NASCAR's version of AA baseball. Almirola jumped at it, happy to have the opportunity and he made the most of it.
Almirola drove in 16 of the final 18 races in Ballew's Toyota. He had seven top 5s, including seconds at Talladega and Iowa, and 10 top-10s.
Busch left Ballew to form his own Truck team and Almirola became the team's primary driver this season with crew chief Richie Wauters. He won at Dover and Michigan, the first Truck victories of his career.
During the same time, Earnhardt Jr. and sister Kelley, General Manager for JR Motorsports, were looking for a permanent replacement for their No. 88 Nationwide car. Kelly Bires had started the season and had been released early. The No. 88 was going through an extensive try-out process. They hired Almirola to drive at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis in late July.
Almirola finished third and impressed crew chief Tony Eury Jr. Pops recommended Almirola for the job for the full 2011 season and he was signed in August.
Earnhardt Jr. had spotted Brad Keselowski in the Trucks, too, and he had breakthrough seasons in the No. 88 in 2008 and 2009, winning six races and finishing third in the Nationwide points both seasons. It catapulted Keselowski into a full-time rides in Cup and Nationwide, where he was champion this season, with Penske Racing.
"[Almirola's] a really talented driver and we're fortunate to get him," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I've thought highly of him for a long time and what I've seen him do in the Truck Series and in our car at ORP pretty much reinforced that. It's important for us to get some continuity going again, run for a championship and contend for wins. JR Motorsports isn't much fun when that's not happening."
Almirola had opportunities to sign with Cup teams for next year, but decided to follow the same path as Keselowski.
"I feel really confident that I can go there (JR Motorsports) and do a good job for them and that my career will continue to grow," Almirola said.
Almirola finished second in the Truck points this season and had 18 top-5s in 25 races. He also drove for JR Motorsports in seven of the last nine Nationwide races and the No. 9 Cup car for Richard Petty Motorsports for the last five races following Kasey Kahne's departure.
"It's been a long season, but a good one for me," Almirola said. "I think my success in the Truck Series opened the door for a lot of things to happen, including hooking up with JRM at ORP. That was a big turning point for me this year. Fortunately we ran well enough there that I was able to land a full-time ride with JRM. Now, we get the chance to compete for a championship next season.
"I'm excited to have some time off, but I'll still be looking forward to a fresh start next season. It's going to be good going into next year knowing the guys on the team and how things work over there. I've got a solid relationship with Pops (Eury Sr.) and I think we both have a good understanding of each other. I'm glad we had the chance to work together so much over these last couple of months. It gives us a good head start going into 2011."
Almirola's fourth at Homestead-Miami was his best finish in Cup. It was his final step forward in a season where he made many.