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Milwaukee behind him, Almirola is ready to move up NASCAR ladder

Aric Almirola has added two wins since, but there's no escaping his first victory in one of NASCAR's top three series. Not that Almirola's really trying to; he understands the interest.

"It's something that happened that people like to talk about," he said.

Now, as Almirola moves full-time to the Nationwide Series in JR Motorsports' No. 88 Chevrolet, it's a certainty he'll continue to answer questions about what happened in June 2007 at the Milwaukee Mile. That's because it's the oddest of oddities: a win that a driver refuses to put on his resume.

Almirola, then with Joe Gibbs Racing, was filling in for teammate Denny Hamlin, whose helicopter couldn't find a place to land as he traveled to Wisconsin from Cup qualifying in Sonoma, Calif. When Hamlin finally arrived, Almirola sat in third-place, 59 laps into the 250-lap race. Almirola was pulled for what JGR called a "business decision" and Hamlin went on to reach Victory Lane. But since Almirola started the race, NASCAR credited him for the win, though he has never had any intention of claiming it as his own.

"I feel like I was a big part of it ... but I didn't the cross the start/finish line at the end of the race, and I didn't take the checkered flag, so I don't take credit for that win," he said.

There's no sense of redemption as the 26-year-old returns to the series this season for his longest stint since running in 18 races that year with JGR. "When it happened I was extremely hurt and I felt like I had every right and deserved to be," he said. "[But] after it was over, it was over ... I want to go out and win a race in the Nationwide Series and I think we're plenty capable of doing that. I've put Milwaukee behind me, and when it comes up, it doesn't bother me anymore."

His focus isn't on removing an asterisk. Instead, it's on putting the lessons of a successful Trucks season to use as he moves back up the NASCAR ladder.

*******

All Almirola had wanted throughout his career was stability. In 2003, he was plucked out of the Florida Sunbelt Series, where he was driving late model stock cars, to become one of the original members of the JGR/Reggie White Driver Diversity Program. Over the next four years, Almirola, who is of Cuban descent, moved from the Trucks Series to Busch and made his Cup debut at Las Vegas in '07.

But throughout it all, he never had a team to his own. He shared Nationwide duties with Hamlin and, after leaving JGR following the '07 incident at Milwaukee, took up co-Cup driving duties with Mark Martin for Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

"I'd never really had [anyone] say, 'This is your team. These are your cars. Go out and race every single weekend and try to win us a championship,'" he said.

He seemed to have found his chance when Martin left newly-named Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in '09 in the Cup series, but the sponsorship dried up after eight races and Almirola was without a job.

In stepped Billy Ballew as Almirola ran the rest of the season in a Ballew-owned truck, posting 10 top-10 finishes over 16 races to finish 20th in the points. That set the stage for the most successful season of Almirola's career as he finished second in the points in 2010 to Todd Bodine. He also further distanced himself from the past by taking the checkered flag at both Dover and Michigan.

"That was a huge weight lifted off my chest when I won my first Trucks race at Dover," Almirola said. "Just the simple satisfaction that I had finally won a race in NASCAR."

While Almirola didn't win the Trucks title, he believes having been in the hunt has given him a clear view of how to win. "I have a good understanding of what it takes to win a championship because we came as close as we did," he said. "I think that experience going through what I did last year is going to be a huge help this year."

As too will be having already logged valuable track time with his new team.

***

With Jimmie Johnson and his wife, Chandra, expecting their first child last summer, Hendrick Motorsports needed an emergency driver should word come down that Johnson's wife had gone into labor during a race; they chose Almirola.

While he never had to step in for Johnson, those weeks did open the door for another opportunity. He was approached by JR Motorsports for a one-race deal to drive the No. 88 at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis.

"I talked to [owners Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Elledge] about it and they said 'Just go run for us at ORP and have fun and do a good job and this could turn out into something more,'"Almirola recalled.

After qualifying sixth, he finished in third place and they immediately started negotiating a long-term deal. Almirola had been in discussions with other teams, but that early success, plus working with Junior, whom he had been friends with for years, proved the right combination. "I realized that that was the team I wanted to be a part of," said Almirola, who signed a two-year deal with JRM in August.

He ran in seven more races for JRM while maintaining his Trucks obligations, posting three top 10s. Almirola believes that experience will prove invaluable as he pursues a Nationwide title as one of only 15 eligible drivers -- NASCAR has mandated that drivers must declare which series title they are contending for -- who will run the entire schedule.

"We're not all new to each other," he said. "We're not trying to get seats put in cars; all that stuff's been done. We've got a real good handle on what we need to go out and run fast."

He's also been schooled in Pops' way of doing things. Crew chief Tony Eury Sr., also known as 'Pops,' has already won two series titles with Earnhardt Jr., and Almirola is absorbing as much as possible from his veteran guide as they attempt to add another.

"I think the biggest advice I've gotten from him is just to go out and race hard but don't do anything stupid," Almirola said. "It's hard to race for a championship, but it's really easy to take yourself out of a championship."

There has been no talk of Almirola supplementing his schedule with any Cup dates. Instead his focus is on delivering in the No. 88. "I feel like I owe it to everyone who works at JR Motorsports to go out and try to win a championship," he said. "I'm not going to do anything to hinder that."

There's an undeniable sense of gratitude about Almirola. He has learned from past, from having victory literally snatched out from under him to losing a Cup ride to taking over the flagship vehicle with JRM.

"I wouldn't trade any of the experiences I've had," he said. "I feel like I've learned a lot and it's made me a lot better racecar driver."

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