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Friday, August 6, 2010
Aric Almirola's phone is finally ringing

By Marty Smith
ESPN.com

I had a stimulating conversation with my 4-year-old son at dinner this week, which included a declaration about what he wants to be when he grows up.

"I want to be a racecar driver, Daddy," he said, "and I'll even let you be on my pit crew."

Well, all right then.

Marty,
A couple weeks ago you wrote about Aric Almirola and how he went from a NASCAR nobody to winning races because he stuck with it. That really inspired me and made me a fan of his. Will he stay in the No. 51 truck next year, or has his success given him more opportunity? I'd love it if he made it to Cup. Think he can?
-- Jim Nottingham, Juniper, Fla.

I know he can make it to Cup, Jim. At this point, it's up to him how soon he goes.

Aric Almirola, Chad Knaus, and Jimmie Johnson
A lot of eyes were opened in the NASCAR garage when Jimmie Johnson, right, and Chad Knaus, center, tabbed Aric Almirola as Johnson's backup driver earlier this season.

I spoke with Almirola this week about how this season's breakthrough Truck Series campaign has affected his future. He told me he has full-time offers for 2011 in all three major series.

"Last year, I felt like I was cancerous," Almirola said. "Nobody would talk to me. I called all over the place and went to the track. Everything I knew to do, I did. And everybody was like, 'Yeah, nice to see you, but we don't really got anything.' I just sat at home and worked on my house. My house was spotless. Every honey-do list I had was done, twice. I was bored out of my mind."

The NASCAR garage can be a cruel domain, especially for a guy trying desperately to show people he belongs and deserves a chance. Basically, the routine is the same: wander truck to truck, stall to stall until you happen upon a team owner. You grip-n-grin with a quick handshake reminder -- "Hello, sir. I'm still alive" -- then tuck your tail and wait for the next superficial 30-second prayer.

That was Almirola's life in 2009. It stunk. Then Billy Ballew called. Hello, career-changer.

Check that: career-saver.

"We took off this year and went out to run for a championship, and we've won some races and done good -- and all the sudden my phone's ringing," Almirola said. "It's funny. Exactly one year ago at this time, May, June, I had nothing. Absolutely nothing. And for a year later to be winning truck races and running for a championship, and for the phone to be ringing with people asking if I have a contract and if I'm available, it's like, 'Wow.'

"It's flattering, but at the same time [it's] a lot of those same people that wouldn't talk to you a year ago. So it just shows me how our sport works, and it's all about what you do today. If you're not winning races today, you're not on the forefront of a lot of minds. Hell, our sport is 100 percent performance based."

Almirola's success piqued the interest of some Hendrick Motorsports heavy-hitters, namely Chad Knaus. When Knaus' driver, Jimmie Johnson, was searching for backup help in case his wife went into labor and he required a replacement driver, Knaus sought Almirola.

"The timing was just right -- I'm at Charlotte and saw Chad, and Chad asked me about it and I was flattered. Very humbled," Almirola said. "That meant a lot to me. They needed somebody to fill in for the four-time champion, and they asked me. And the PR side of it was huge, because not only is JJ going to get a lot of attention anyway, but to know he's got a baby on the way and somebody else is going to get into his car only made it bigger."

The opportunity in the 48 led to Cup testing opportunities for HMS and to run JR Motorsports' No. 88 Chevrolet at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis. And that's not all.

"A lot of other people in the Cup garage are like, 'Well, if he's good enough to drive at Hendrick, he's good enough to drive for us," Almirola said.

Several Cup teams have called, Almirola said. Nationwide teams and Truck teams, too.

"To tell you the truth, it's been cool as hell," he said. "To know I have options … I actually have options? To be able to pick and choose, just because I feel like people want me. A year ago nobody would even give me the time of day. That's been neat for me to experience that. It's been good for me and good for my family. I can sleep at night."

Almirola faces a key decision. His choice of rides in 2011 will determine the viability of his racing future. He has asked close friends, like Tony Stewart, for advice. He needs straight-shooters.

"Everybody I talk to thinks like I think -- no matter what I get into, it needs to go like this year," Almirola said. "I need to be in something competitive and win races and run up front every weekend. That's what people notice. If I run 25th, nobody cares. But if I run top five, they damn sure notice.

Almirola said he'd rather have success in a lower series than struggle after making the jump to the Sprint Cup.

"It doesn't matter what series you're in," he said. "Being young helps. I feel like I've been up to Cup and been knocked back down. I need to be very conscious of my decisions. I feel like I have one more opportunity to work my way back up.

"It's not an easy decision by any means, but I feel like whatever decision I end up making will be best for my career long term. That's what I'm looking at. I'll take these sleepless nights over the other sleepless nights any day."

Marty,
Elliott Sadler is damn lucky. I saw where you said on Twitter afterwards that Pocono must fix the walls there. I agree. Have you talked to Elliott about it? He must have freaked out.
-- Eddie O'Meara, Dallas

Elliott Sadler's wreck Sunday was a sobering reminder of how dangerous racing is, Eddie.

Door-To-Door
with Marty Smith
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Ask Marty

We take it for granted. Racing has claimed precious lives throughout the years, but for the past decade, we've seen cars slam into one another and into walls, seen them climb walls and flip from time-to-time. The accidents at times are horrific. But we don't often flinch, because the drivers always walk away. Safety has rendered us desensitized.

But when Sadler slammed nose-first into a guardrail in front of an earthen berm at Pocono, we all flinched. We all stopped, aghast. Some cried. It was horrible.

Fortunately for Sadler, his life didn't change much. Thanks to the HANS device, he walked away in remarkably fine shape. The fact is, he's blessed to be walking.

I spoke with him about it. He still can't believe how hard the hit actually was. He braced himself to slide through the grass and sustain a Level 4 hit, on a scale of 1-10.

"It was a 10," he said.

He expected to glance off the guardrail, had no clue the wall was shaped in a 90-degree corner. His seatbelts caught him so hard it tore the top layer of skin from his chest and stomach in places. It took his breath like no hit before.

The hit caught him off guard.

"When I saw how the wall was made, with earth behind it and no give at all, I realized I was very lucky just to walk away," Sadler said.

Indeed. Throughout this year, Sadler has worried about his racing future.

After that hit, I'm just glad he has a chance for one.

Marty,
What's the future of Juan Pablo Montoya and crew chief Brian Pattie? They seem to do good together, but don't get the wins and it seems like they've had it with each other in their radio conversations. Will they stay together?
-- Randy Martin, Simmonsville, Ga.

There's no way to know that just yet, Randy. I feel sure they'll be together through the end of this year, but after that is anybody's guess. More than anything it's about mutual respect. There's a certain level of common courtesy that one man must display toward another. I'm not saying they have to be bosom buddies. They don't.

But Pattie is a sought-after commodity. His phone rings a lot. He's building the nicest cars in the garage, and people have taken notice. Montoya should realize that, too, and do everything in his power to keep Pattie. JPM has rare driving talent, but a driver is only as good as the cars he's in. Right now, nobody has better cars than the 42.

I asked Pattie this week about Montoya's verbal explosion at Pocono, in which he chastised the crew.

"All is good, and communication is fine," Pattie said. "That's what you get when you have two people with that much passion about winning. Both of us want to win very badly, both for our team and for Target."

Marty,

I'm a huge fan of Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick, and am ready to get new gear for them both. What am I looking at? What's the latest on their sponsorship searches?
-- Cheryl Maxiel, Covington, Ky.

Expect an announcement from both drivers soon, Cheryl. They're both close.

Sources tell me Harvick will have a split sponsorship on the No. 29 in 2011, and Budweiser will be on the car in the majority of points races, as well as the two exhibition events. There are still some hurdles to jump to get the Bud deal done.

RCR had no comment when I asked them about it. Budweiser, either.

Budweiser and Harvick are a good match. His edgy personality fits the brand well. He meshes with the no-nonsense good ol' boy, red label demographic. I'm told Harvick did himself a huge favor with the way he conducted himself in Victory Lane at the Shootout in February -- beer in hand while saying and doing the right things in front of the company's new management.

As for Stewart's No. 14 Chevy, Old Spice's decision to leave the sport left a financial void at Stewart-Haas Racing. Mobil 1, who will leave Penske Racing at season's end in the wake of the Shell-to-Kurt-Busch deal, is a likely replacement.

Marty,
What are your thoughts on Bobby Labonte joining JTG Daugherty Racing next year? It seems to be a good fit for Bobby and the team. I'm surprised it has taken Bobby this long to get on with a team that can run the full schedule and the whole race. Thanks!
-- Scott, Mantorville, Minn.

When Labonte straps into the No. 47 for the 2011 Daytona 500, it will be his best chance to win since he left Joe Gibbs Racing, Scott. There is no debating that.

Bobby Labonte
Bobby Labonte is going to find himself in his most competitive car in years at JTG Daugherty Racing in 2011.

I remember writing a couple Christmases ago that Labonte would be excellent at Hall of Fame, in the No. 96 car. He had Todd Parrott as crew chief, corporate backing from Ask.com and all manner of pretty things on paper. They were terrible.

This is different. JTGD is a team that has proven it can contend.

I spoke with Labonte a couple of months back for a column about his future, and he desperately wanted a chance in decent equipment to show the world he's not an also-ran. Many folks began to view him as such. This is a heartless business.

The very concept of being in a start-and-park situation was intolerable, so he bailed out at TRG unless they planned to run the entire show. For that, he deserves credit.

For some drivers, starting and parking is a good way to make ends meet.

For a former champion, it is a smack in the mouth.

Brad Daugherty told me how Labonte can help his race team. Basically, they're getting older to get younger. Marcos Ambrose is a far better driver than folks realize. That dude can wheel it. You don't run third at Bristol on a whim.

But Ambrose is learning NASCAR right along with the team. Labonte already knows NASCAR. So what Daugherty and Tad Geschickter felt is that Labonte would offer the team a better baseline from which to build the organization.

Who knows, maybe they'll contend for a few wins. Nobody is better at Atlanta than Labonte. He's great at Charlotte, too. With Michael Waltrip Racing equipment, he should have a piece that can contend.

Speaking of Ambrose …

Marty,
What's really going on with Marcos Ambrose!! He's my favorite driver because he's such a great guy, and he's good for NASCAR. I had sort of lost interest in the sport before he came along. Please -- PLEASE! -- tell me he's staying in Sprint Cup!
-- Rebecca, Luttrell, Tenn.

Ambrose's heart is most certainly in Cup, Rebecca. He made that abundantly clear this week while addressing the media on NASCAR's weekly conference call.

His motivation is fundamental: unfinished business.

But to remain here, he must find a proper situation. He has had discussions with Richard Petty Motorsports about a future there, and they've discussed him with potential sponsors. I spoke with Ambrose last week about RPM. He told me there is definitely merit to reports that RPM is a lead option, but nothing is signed.

At this point, it's about sponsorship. If they find money, he'll be there.

That union makes sense, given Ambrose's ties to Ford Motor Company. Ford brought Ambrose to NASCAR.

"I think it's safe to say we'd like to have him to come back 'home,' so to speak," Ford spokesman Kevin Kennedy said. "He's very well liked by both our execs here and at Ford Australia, so we are very supportive of the efforts to sign him by RPM.

"We think he does have 'blue' blood in him, so it would be a very comfortable fit with us. We're hopeful it all works out."

Ambrose reiterated last week, too, that a return to Australia is plausible. He said he has a good offer there.

Ambrose said this week that the aforementioned unfinished business in NASCAR would never wane if he doesn't close the deal. He feels like he's established his place in the industry and belongs in NASCAR. He is correct. He is an excellent driver and an even nicer person.

"I would like to stay here in America if I could, but if it doesn't work out, I have taken a risk right now," he said. "I have jumped out of the team that I had, fully-sponsored, and I was contracted to drive for 2011. And right now, I don't have any contract on the table to sign.

"So there is a risk involved with that. I understand the risks, and I am willing to take any outcome from this point and deal with it. But if I could, I would love to stay in NASCAR and finish off what I started."

I believe he'll be in Cup, and I believe it'll be with RPM.

Luttrell, Tenn., huh? Kenny Chesney's hometown. It's a lot like mine, Pearisburg, Va. Don't blink.

Marty,
I'm a huge Kasey Kahne fan, and I saw him in a picture with some Army boots on. What's up with that? Is he promoting the military or was it part of his camo car thing?

-- Amber Tomlinson, San Diego

It's a program called the Boot Campaign, Amber, which was started by a group of women in Texas. These ladies were inspired by the story of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, who in 2005 lost his entire team of brothers in an hours-long firefight with al-Qaida extremists.

He made it out -- barely. Since returning home, Luttrell's mission has been to ensure the well-being of his fellow veterans. He formed The Lone Survivor Foundation, which benefits wounded soldiers who need help -- every dime of every dollar raised. He was disgusted by nonprofits that boasted veteran-assistance, and then offered only a portion of their proceeds to soldiers while pocketing the rest. Not Luttrell. All of it goes to his boys.

He wrote a personal account of his war experience that spent eight months on the New York Times bestseller list. One of the Boot Girls read it and was inspired to change the way military support looked. She and her friends created the Boot Campaign, a series of posters with celebrities wearing combat boots, as the centerpiece of their "When They Come Back, We Give Back" program. The idea was to remind Americans that no matter their respective walk of life, they should take a moment to reflect on what it must be like to walk in a soldier's boots.

Kahne was among those that participated, along with Travis Pastrana, Gretchen Wilson, Joe Nichols, Randy Houser, Robert Earl Keen, Texas football coach Mack Brown, the Randy Rogers Band, the Detroit Red Wings, Houston Astros first baseman Carlos Lee and several more.

Kahne's involvement came courtesy of Budweiser's relationship with the USO, a beneficiary of the Boot Campaign. Kahne did his photo shoot in Victory Lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.

The Boot Campaign is an amazing initiative. Thank you to Luttrell, and kudos to those ladies. If only we all gave back so selflessly.

That's my time, team. Thank you for yours. Now, I'm off to brush up on my tire-changing skills.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.