Aric Almirola lands ride of his life
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The new driver of the famous No. 43 is a nice guy and a decent driver much better prepared, in his words, for a Sprint Cup ride than he was the first time he was given an opportunity. He works well with sponsors and teammates, and he won't say things that will embarrass either group.
It's hard to find any significant negatives about Aric Almirola.
Except he's unproven.
As much as you have to admire Richard Petty Motorsports for looking outside the box and taking a chance on this 27-year-old Nationwide Series driver, Kurt Busch is what the organization really needed.
He's what the No. 43 needed.
We hear all the time how NASCAR yearns for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to end his three-and-a-half-year losing streak and compete for a championship. But the sport also could benefit from seeing the car Richard Petty drove to 200 wins and seven titles back in Victory Lane and competing for a championship.
Busch could have done that immediately.
Almirola is at least a few years from that. He's a project.
RPM has had enough projects in the 20 years since Petty retired.
In case you haven't crunched the numbers, the No. 43 has gone 451 starts without a victory. Earnhardt's 129-race losing streak doesn't sound so bad now, does it?
Since Richard Petty won his last race in 1984, the No. 43 has been to Victory Lane only three times in 855 starts with nine drivers. That's a woeful .003 winning percentage.
The percentage will continue to fall with Almirola, who admittedly has a steep learning curve jumping from the No. 88 Nationwide Series car at JR Motorsports into his first full Cup season.
"Obviously, it's gonna be my first year running full time in Cup, so there will be some growing pains," Almirola said Wednesday after being introduced as RPM's new driver. "I realize that I've got a lot of learning to do. I don't expect to just go out there and win six races and run for the championship, but I do expect to be competitive. I do expect to run really good on a regular basis."
Busch, who landed at Phoenix Racing after a tumultuous parting with Penske Racing, could have run really well on a regular basis. The 2004 Cup champion would have been a threat to win the Daytona 500, make the Chase and compete for the title.
Almirola will be lucky to finish in the top 15 in points the way another RPM project, AJ Allmendinger, did this past season in the 43 before moving to Penske Racing to replace Busch.
And for the record, even though CEO Brian Moffitt said Thursday that Almirola was RPM's "top choice," Busch was a front-runner, unless chief operating officer Robbie Loomis was blowing smoke recently about mortgaging "my house to make Kurt part of this team."
Neither side said why a Busch-to-RPM deal never came together, although Busch could've become a nonfactor after sponsor Best Buy left RPM for Roush Fenway Racing.
Nobody was as outspoken about Almirola as about Busch other than to say he has a lot of potential.
"We feel extremely fortunate to have had a number of very talented drivers interested in joining our organization, but ultimately we felt Aric would be the best fit for the team and for our current and potential partners," team co-owner Richard Petty said in a statement. "We have had the chance to watch his progress for the past several years and we had success with him in the past."
Busch, personality and anger issues aside, has undeniable talent.
But Almirola is a good story. He is the first driver to come out of NASCAR's diversity program and make the top series. His grandparents came to the United States from Cuba in 1966 on the Freedom Flights. They gave the Cuban government everything, including the wedding ring of Almirola's grandmother, to chase the American dream.
Because of them, Almirola can dream.
I realize that I've got a lot of learning to do. I don't expect to just go out there and win six races and run for the championship, but I do expect to be competitive.” -- Aric Almirola
"When I was younger, I didn't really appreciate it," Almirola said of his heritage. "I didn't really think it meant anything, but the older that I've gotten, and to now pay my own bills and now that I'm married and possibly thinking about having a family, I understand a lot better what they went through when they gave up everything they had to create a better life not only for themselves but for their family.
"So I get to be living proof of that. I get to drive a race car for a living."
Not just any car. He gets to drive arguably the most famous number in NASCAR. Perhaps Amirola will defy the odds and give that number the wins and prestige that it deserves again. He did finish fourth in the 2010 Cup finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway subbing for Kasey Kahne, who left RPM for Red Bull Racing with five races remaining.
Mark Martin always had good things to say about Almirola when they split the No. 01 at Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2007 and the No. 8 in 2008.
Almirola also finished second in the Camping World Truck Series in 2010 and fourth in the Nationwide Series in 2011.
Maybe Almirola is ready to take off in the Cup series the way Brad Keselowski did in 2011 only two years removed from his own last season in JRM's No. 88. Almirola has the right attitude.
"Obviously, being a rookie, I'll probably make my share of mistakes," Almirola said. "But I don't think, from a sense of speed and being competitive on the racetrack, I don't see any reason why we won't be [competitive]."
See, the new driver of the famous No. 43 says all the right things and is as nice as can be.
But if he's not competitive and doesn't produce right away, remember this is just a one-year deal and Busch will be available again in 2013.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.
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