For five years, Aric Almirola's NASCAR career sailed along smoothly. Signed to a development contract by Joe Gibbs Racing, he started in the Late Model Whelen All-American Series in 2004 and advanced through Camping World Trucks and Nationwide to Sprint Cup. He began this season in Earnhardt Ganassi Racing's No. 8, the Chevrolet that Dale Earnhardt Jr. made famous.
Almirola shared the No. 8 with Mark Martin last season, driving in 12 Cup races for DEI, and became its sole driver for 2009 when Martin departed for Hendrick Motorsports. But DEI melted down, lost sponsorships, and last fall merged with Ganassi to maintain a multi-car operation.
Earnhardt Ganassi had full funding for Martin Truex's No. 1 and Juan Pablo Montoya's No. 42. It wanted to try to keep a third entry going, and pieced together a group of sponsors that put Almirola into the first seven races of the year. The money ran out and the No. 8 was parked in early April and hasn't returned. Almirola didn't drive for two months. It was as hard a hit as he's ever taken.
"It's definitely been a character-building experience for sure," Almirola said. "I think I'm a better person for it. It's taught me a lot of lessons and definitely taught me a lot about myself. I was always grateful for the opportunities I've gotten, but it can get taken away and sometimes you forget that. It wasn't fun, it wasn't good. I definitely won't take any opportunities, not that I have before, for granted.
Almirola remains under contract to Earnhardt Ganassi, and the team continues to work to get him back into the No. 8 this season.
"It's something they want to get done," Almirola said. "They want three cars on the track. They have everything to do it: the shop space, the equipment, the airplanes. It comes down to the almighty dollar. Chip [Ganassi] couldn't keep digging into his pocket, I understand that. We've felt like we've been close on some things.
"It's been a struggle, to say the least, but I haven't given up hope."
Still, Almirola has been able to find employment in both the Truck and Nationwide Series. He finished third -- a career-best in the series -- in the Truck race last Friday night at O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis, and was 14th in the Nationwide race the next night at ORP.
"Everybody knew after Texas Cup I was looking for something to race," Almirola said. "I really wanted to be in a car and was fortunate to get a call from Curtis Key. He had an opportunity to run some races and I went over there and looked at his trucks and agreed to do it. It was pretty much the same deal with Billy Ballew. He called up and offered me some races and it was a no brainer."
Almirola got into Ballew's No. 15 Toyota truck in early June at Texas. He's run five races and the past three have been top-fives.
Almirola will make his third start of the season in the Nationwide with Key's team at Iowa Speedway on Saturday. He finished 11th at Milwaukee in his first race with the team in late June.
"It's been good," Almirola said. "Curtis doesn't have a Cup affiliation and he spends every dollar he can into the program. We've had good cars and two good runs."
With Martin Truex's departure, Earnhardt Ganassi has a Cup seat available for next season, and Almirola may be a fit for them.
"I would love to do that," he said, "but that's not really up to me. It's up to Chip and the team. If it becomes a reality, that would be great. But it's not my call. I have to prove I deserve it. I think it would be a great opportunity. You see where we've started and how we've made the cars better every week. Juan has run better every week. Martin has gotten better, too, and has been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Juan's run at Indianapolis [Sunday in the Brickyard 400, where he led 116 laps before a pit-lane speeding penalty relegated him to an 11th-place finish] shows how competitive the team is."
Almirola's residency within the team makes him a viable candidate for the No. 1. But Brad Keselowski and, probably, Jamie McMurray, are also available and they've won races in Cup, something Almirola hasn't done.
Almirola has 92 total starts in NASCAR's three national series, 25 in Cup, 29 in Nationwide and 38 in Trucks, but has run only one full season, in trucks in 2006. It is very difficult to win races as a part-timer, although Keselowski did it this year in Cup.
"Racing in the Trucks and Nationwide this season has kept me out in the public view, and the good runs I've had [haven't] gone unnoticed," Almirola said. "I've gotten phone calls from people who have seen what I'm doing. I think it [full time] definitely will be a reality. I've got some things in the works and I think something will happen. I want to show up for a race to drive something that is really mine."
Almirola isn't so sure about how many races he'll do the rest of this year. He knows he needs to make every opportunity count.
"I've been taking it week by week and every Monday is a new week for me," he said. "I'm thankful for the opportunities I've had this year. I'm just excited to be back racing."