Promise of potential leads to peculiar hiring for Richard Petty
Aric Almirola has bounced around from team to team in Sprint Cup, never staying long in stints with Joe Gibbs Racing, Ginn Racing, Dale Earnhardt Inc., Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports. He's had one top-five finish and two top-10s in 35 starts, journeyman numbers.
RPM's decision to sign Almirola to drive the legendary No. 43 this season had many in NASCAR nation scratching their heads. Trevor Bayne, the Daytona 500 winner last year, David Ragan, a Cup race winner in 2011, and 2011 Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. all have ties to Ford and Roush Fenway Racing (RPM's technical partners) and a deal, undoubtedly, could have been reached to sign one of them.
Almirola impressed Petty when he drove in the final five races of the season for RPM in 2010 as a replacement for Kasey Kahne, who departed early for Red Bull Racing. Almirola was a career-best fourth at Homestead-Miami in his last race.
"I got the privilege to drive [at RPM] at the end of 2010 and got to work with a lot of the people here at Richard Petty Motorsports," Almirola said. "I built a relationship ... with all those people involved. I'd say that had a lot to do with it."
Almirola drove in Nationwide for JR Motorsports last season, finishing fourth in the points with seven top-fives and 18 top-10s in 34 starts.
"We didn't run as great as we wanted to, but we ran good," Almirola said. "We had a respectable year."
It wasn't the type of season to write home about, but it didn't deter Petty.
"We saw a lot of potential in Aric and have watched him closely at Junior Motorsports," RPM chief executive officer Brian Moffitt said. "Richard [Petty] always said if he had an opportunity, that he [Aric] was somebody he would like to be in the No. 43. We got everyone together here at Richard Petty Motorsports ... and went down the list and Aric was the top choice for us."
Almirola's Cup record is deceptive. He's never raced enough with one organization to establish himself and develop chemistry with the crew chief and team. Gibbs looks good on the resume, but he only drove one race for them early in 2007. He went to Ginn in the summer of that year and drove in five races. DEI bought Ginn and Almirola made 12 starts for his new team in 2008, sharing the car with Mark Martin.
DEI and Ganassi merged before the 2009 season. Earnhardt Ganassi tried to run three cars with Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr. and Almirola, but seven races into the season, Almirola's car was parked due to a lack of sponsorship.
Almirola was idle for a couple of months before Billy Ballew called to offer him an opportunity to drive for his NASCAR Camping World Truck team. Kyle Busch was the team's primary driver, and Ballew put Almirola in the part-time second truck. Almirola began putting together top-fives -- seven in 16 races -- and it attracted sponsorship. He stayed with Ballew in 2010, won two races and finished second in the points. Overall, he had 11 top-fives and 21 top-10s in 25 races.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. hired Almirola to drive eight races for JR Motorsports in 2010, and Almirola had a third and three more top-10s. It led to driving the No. 88 last season.
"A few years ago, I had the opportunity to go Cup racing, but it wasn't at this [RPM] level," Almirola said. "There were a lot of moving parts going on and it didn't end up working out. I went back and went Truck racing and ran very competitive. I got to run five races in the No. 9 car [with RPM] that same year  and ran rather well for [it] being, quite honestly, my first time at a lot of those racetracks in a Cup car. Taking all of that, we moved to the Nationwide deal with Junior Motorsports.
"I think taking all of that knowledge and stuff I learned over the last two or three years has done nothing but made me a better driver. So, to have the opportunity to be in as good of equipment as I'm getting in now, I'm really excited about it. I feel like I'm a way better race car driver than I was three years ago, so I feel like I'll be able to make the most of this opportunity. This is, by far, probably the best opportunity I've ever had to go and succeed at it [Cup] and ... doing it driving the No. 43 car is pretty special."
RPM's goal is to place two cars in the top 20 in points and one in the Chase.
"We set our goals last year with Marcos [Ambrose] and A.J. [Allmendinger, who finished 15th in points in the No. 43] to be in the top 20 and hopefully one of them makes the Chase or top-15. We actually hit that goal, and we expect the same with Aric and Marcos going into this year," Moffitt said.
Almirola sees a top-15 finish and a Chase appearance as a lofty ambition.
"It's gonna be my first year running full-time in Cup, so there will be some growing pains," Almirola said. "I realize I've got a lot of learning to do. I do expect to run really good on a regular basis. Their equipment is very capable of that. I'd love to be in the top-15 and have a shot at making the Chase, but the reality is this is my first year.
"If I drive these cars the way they're capable of running and finish where I feel like we're capable of finishing as a race team, I don't see any reason why we shouldn't be competitive and finish decent in the point standings. Like Brian said, top-20, top-15, maybe even having a shot at getting in the Chase."
The 27-year-old Almirola should have his best years ahead of him and RPM's decision to sign him is an endorsement of his talent and potential. The organization thought out of the box -- and away from the Ford, Roush Fenway universe -- in bringing in Almirola, perhaps because it wants to have more of an identity and not been seen as a farm team. But RPM wouldn't have grabbed him without believing he can do the job.
"We are really confident in his potential as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver," Petty said. "We think Aric has all the makings to be the next bright star in our sport."