Aric Almirola (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Give Richard Childress two thumbs-up…give Bobby Hutchens a pat on the back for taking the charge. And now it’s time for Aric Almirola and Regan Smith to step to the plate and show what they can do with the wheels.
There are no guarantees this DEI rescue plan will work. But when Childress puts his shoulder to the task, good things usually happen. Eventually.
Just how long ‘eventually’ might be in this case, though, is ripe for debate.
However Aric Almirola has been polishing himself for just this moment for more than four years now, for a shot to become an ‘overnight’ sensation. And at just 24 he could be ready to make it as one of NASCAR’s next big home run hitters.
Yes, the sport does have half a dozen contenders vying for that headline spot. But among the top newcomers DEI has two of the candidates, Smith and Almirola.
Yes, that’s been the way to describe Dale Earnhardt Inc. lately….with a question mark.
DEI has, to hear the rumbling throughout the garage, been on a downward spiral this season, following the loss of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to rival Chevy team owner Rick Hendrick.
However Childress, the veteran Winston-Salem car owner who is angling for a seventh NASCAR Cup championship this season with his own RCR operation, has been working quietly behind the scenes to help get things back on track at DEI.
Childress has been determined to keep Dale Earnhardt’s ‘GarageMahal’ from becoming just a ghostly museum to the legend He has beefed up the DEI engine operation, with a joint R&D program. Now he’s sent his top-of-the-line managing engineer, Hutchens, over to DEI to help John Story and Max Siegel fill in the holes.
Richard Childress (R) is giving a hand to turn around things at DEI. (Here the Winston-Salem car owner gives four-year-old Tyson Mitchell of Noblesville, IN an autograph. Tyson, who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, was attending his very first race.) (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Almirola, of Cuban descent (his father escaped Castro during one of the 1960s’ Freedom Flights), is perhaps the top Cup prospect to emerge so far from NASCAR’s long-running diversity program, though Saturday night’s 500 was only his 11th career tour start.
He might be even further along in his NASCAR career – even in the very spot where Joey Logano sits today (announcement is expected Monday that Logano, at 18, will replace Tony Stewart next season)—if not for a rare mistake by Joe and J. D. Gibbs last summer. The Gibbs made headlines, and controversy, by pulling Almirola out of their Busch (now Nationwide) car while he was leading at Milwaukee and putting more star-powered Denny Hamlin in the car in order to placate a sponsor.
The Gibbs got criticism for that decision. Almirola himself fumed, and split. But Almirola now says he understands the deal – sponsorship money is hard to come by, and when a sponsor speaks, car owners listen.
Almirola got his first break when the Gibbs discovered him running the Florida short-tracks and put him in Reggie White’s diversity program in 2004, racing Late Models at Ace Speedway over in Burlington, N.C. (a NASCAR short-track that has been living up to Daytona’s weekly series marketing campaign).
It’s been a slow, ragged road from there to here, where Saturday night the Tampa, Fla., racer got his seventh Cup start of the year. He got his first Cup start in last season’s tire-disaster 400 at Las Vegas, with the Gibbs. After the Milwaukee incident Almirola wound up at DEI after getting a ride-sharing offer from Martin, during the tumultuous days following Bobby Ginn’s withdrawal.
Aric Almirola (L), talking with crew chief Tony Gibson (C) and DEI teammate Martin Truex Jr. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Of course Almirola had only to peek outside his hauler Friday afternoon – at David Ragan’s spinning, crashing car – to see the downside of the theory of rising NASCAR expectations hitting the glare of the headlights.
But, like Jeff Burton says, a team – from owner to crew chief to sponsor – has to have patience with new drivers like Aric Almirola and Regan Smith and David Ragan:
“It’s like having a three-year-old and being mad because that three-year-old acts like a three-year-old—You can’t have a young driver and then give up on him because he acts like a young driver. Because he is a young driver,” Burton says. “Once you make that commitment, you’ve got to be willing to see it through and help him mature.”
“I agree with that…and any time Jeff Burton says something, you listen,” Almirola says.
“He’s exactly right. I’m young, and I’m dumb, and I’m going to make mistakes.
“But even though I’m not running all the races this year, I’m at every race, sitting up on the pit box, and watching, trying to learn from other’s mistakes, and put that in my memory banks.
“So even when I’m not in the car, I’m trying to learn.
“Yes, David Ragan has to get right up on the wheel now, because he’s trying to make the chase. You have to go for everything., And yes, you’re going to make mistakes.
“But that’s what I like about my race team and my crew chief Tony Gibson: they know I’m young and I’m going to make mistakes, and they’re behind me. We went to Watkins Glen, had a decent car, but I wheel-hopped in turn one and flat-spotted the tires, and we had to pit under green. But that was okay; we knew what we were there for, to get me laps, so next season Sonoma and Watkins Glen won’t be an Achilles Heel.”
Mark Martin (L) listens to questions from DEI teammate Aric Almirola (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
There are three parts to this story: DEI itself, struggling to rebound. Almirola and Smith, newcomers hoping to stick in the big league. And sponsorship.
At the moment the bottom line is DEI has four drivers, good men all, but only two full sponsors. The Paul Menard-John Menard part of the picture is still iffy, with strong reports that the Menards may be moving to the Jack Roush-Doug Yates Ford camp for 2009. But Childress and Earnhardt did finally resolve the Martin Truex Jr. debate, and he will be back with DEI for another season, after negotiating for months to get out of the option year of his contract and move elsewhere, either to Childress’ own team or to Roger Penske’s. That means sponsor Bass Pro Shops will keep writing checks to DEI.
However, the U.S. Army sponsorship that Almirola and Martin have been sharing this year is still up for grabs, and it’s likely that could move to the Red Bull Toyota camp to back Scott Speed, unless Almirola and Martin can make something happen fast to persuade otherwise.
Of course Childress himself has proven quite adept at securing sponsors, adding Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT, with a $43 Billion market cap) and General Mills (NYSE:GIS, with a market cap of $23 Billion, and an obvious possibility for a female driver diversity sponsorship hook, if Childress so decides) for next year.
So the next question is how well Childress can work his boardroom magic for DEI. To pull out some rabbits this late in the sponsor-hunting season Childress will certainly need some hefty support from Smith and Almirola – they’ve got to produce. And that’s not easy, even when you’re Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, both still winless heading into Saturday’s 500.
Aric Almirola, all suited up for Tony Stewart’s Prelude to the Dream at Eldora (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for Eldora Speedway)
Add the pressure of running for DEI…..
“A lot of the media has brought that on DEI, and for whatever reason a lot of the stories about DEI are negative,” Almirola says. “One thing leads to another, and we get a lot of negative press..which may be understandable, because there have been a lot of ups and downs at DEI over the last few years.
“But if we build good cars and go out and run good, all that will take care of itself.
“The sponsors – it all goes back to on the track you have to perform. And I think DEI is doing that.
“Except for Martin not making the chase this after making it last year, he’s getting back on track. He’s been running good the last couple of weeks, had a good run at Watkins Glen.
“Paul is further up in points than he was last year.
“We’ve got fast race cars.
“So if you stand back and look at the big picture, we’ve got four race teams in the top-35. A lot of teams can’t say that.
“We have a lot to offer as a race team.
“It just depends on what spin you want to put on it, negative or positive. And I’m putting a positive spin on it.”
Jeff Burton says sponsors, car owners and crew chiefs—and maybe fellow drivers—need patience with the young, new drivers on the tour (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
The loss of Dale Earnhardt Jr. – considered the franchise—was a major mistake, perhaps bad misjudgment, on Teresa Earnhardt’s part. Earnhardt might have stayed if she’s given him a big ownership stake. But she didn’t, and Junior left.
With Mark Martin this season DEI has had a clear heavyweight at the wheel of its number one car…. but that twist was more happenstance, when Ginn last year gave up the game and Martin had to move on. Martin, though close several times this season, and possibly the favorite at Indianapolis until the tires all fell apart, has yet to win.
And now Martin too has signed on with Hendrick and will be leaving DEI at the end of the season.
Of course if Childress and Teresa Earnhardt had moved more quickly, they might have kept Martin in the lineup, either at DEI or at RCR, which would have been a big plus for Almirola, to have the veteran as his mentor.
Childress, remember, also lost Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Hendrick. So 2009 is shaping up, on the Chevrolet side as Hendrick-and-Tony Stewart versus Childress-and-DEI, which could be an interesting battle.
That fateful day at Milwaukee: Aric Almirola, while leading, gets bounced from this car by owner J. D. Gibbs, who puts Denny Hamlin at the wheel, to placate the sponsor, June 23, 2007. Hamlin went on to win (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The Gibbs Milwaukee fiasco didn’t set well with Almirola at the time: “It was a bum deal….but it was a situation no one wanted to be in,” Almirola says. “I was to go there and practice and qualify the car. Qualified on the pole, so I did my job. Denny was to fly in (from Sonoma) and start the race, but he was late, so I started the car. But when he got there, he got in the car and still won the race.”
The kicker, of course, is that Almirola was leading the race when the Gibbs pulled him out of the car.
“Well, yeah, but that’s okay,” Almirola says now. “It wasn’t my decision. I was just doing what I was told. We thought we were doing the best we could to persuade (sponsor) Rockwell to remain in the sport; they were on the verge of deciding whether or not to stay. So they (the Gibbs) did what they thought they needed to do to get them to stay.
“I understand that, and I respect that. Whoever made the decision, I’m sure it wasn’t easy. We qualified on the pole, we were fast and led a lot of laps. And when they told me to get out I got out.
“I really don’t have any hard feelings. It’s done, it’s over. And a lot of good has happened because of that.
“At the time it was a bummer, and I didn’t like the way everything went down. I felt robbed.
“Still a lot of good has come of that, so I’m actually thankful now.
“So far I’ve managed to be in the right place at the right time.”
J. D. Gibbs has made a lot of good moves, but was losing newcomer Aric Almirola a mistake?(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
The rest of the year for Almirola: California this week, Loudon in two weeks, then Talladega, and Martinsville….all the place Martin doesn’t care to run. “Everybody has teased me about getting to run all the races Mark doesn’t want to run…but that’s okay, because I’ve got to run at those tracks anyway if I’m going to run full-time Cup,” Almirola says with a laugh.
Now, with the RCR-DEI ties, maybe Jeff Burton, once Martin’s younger teammate and mentored by him, can lend a hand to Almirola. Burton knows the road to the top in this sport; he’s been at it since 1993, and his road has been rocky.
“The way that I did it I think was better than the way it’s done today,” Burton says of the general rush by owners to try to strike gold with young drivers. “ Me having time to grow up as a driver—but more importantly as a person—I think was better than throwing a kid 19 or 20-year-old into this. I’m not saying it’s wrong doing that. I just think it served me personally fine to do it the way I did it. Running the Nationwide (then Busch) series allowed me to mature. I ran it full-time for four or five years, and that was a great experience, I learned a lot. It made me a better driver, it made me a more mature person before I moved up into this.
“Then when I moved up into this I drove for a team that really didn’t expect to win. They were very happy running 15th or 20th. It’s a whole different thing compared to today. The way I did it was in some ways better. In other ways it was harder, but it allowed me to grow and get a better understanding of what goes on here.
“But that doesn’t mean you can do it like that today.
Mark Martin (R) is one of NASCAR’s top mentors, as Aric Almirola well knows. Maybe Jeff Burton (L) can pick up that mantle (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
“If you’ve run the Nationwide series four or five years and haven’t had much success, not many people like that are getting Cup rides today. But that was common when I did it.
“Now it’s common to take a kid you think has talent and put him in it.
“If I were Gibbs and that seat were available, Joey Logano would be my candidate. I’d put him in there in heartbeat. And I’d put my arm around him and say ‘We’re with you. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be tough. But we’ve got your back. Don’t try to do more than you can do.’ And I’d send him on his way.
“David Ragan has done it the way I think it should be done: He came in, got to prove to the world that he had to figure out how all this worked…and he backed it down and became much more concerned about running well and understanding these are 500-mile races.
“He’s done it in a quiet way.
Martin Truex Jr. (L) and his crew. Truex is sticking with DEI (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images for NASCAR)
“I think he deserves a tremendous amount of respect for that, and accolades, because he’s made huge improvements and done it in a quiet way.
“You (as a new driver) can have several approaches in how you do this—but you have to understand that you make the rules for everybody else: the way you drive is the way everybody else drives you.
“David’s first few races I don’t think he got that. But he did learn it really quickly. He’s done a remarkable job. I’ve been exceptionally impressed with what he’s been able to do. And I’m proud of his sponsors, of Jack Roush, everybody involved, for patience.
“But David deserves the most credit because he’s done the work. And it’s been really cool to see.”
Joey Logano is leading a charmed life, and will likely be named Tony Stewart’s replacement at Joe Gibbs Racing (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Now in NASCAR there are no guarantees about next week….
But if Hutchens can help step up DEI’s technical operations and get Almirola and Smith more seat time, and if Story, Siegel and Childress can land some more sponsors, there is clearly promise here.
“Sponsorship is tough. You’ve got really good teams hunting for sponsors right now,” Almirola concedes.
“We hope Army is coming back. It’s a lot of fun for me to represent our soldiers. And for me, a rookie, it’s hard to get fans, but with Army as a sponsor, I get hundreds of thousands of fans.”
And Almirola, a minority of sorts, and just 24, can market Army perhaps better than Martin, at 50. When Almirola hits the high school circuit for his sponsor, he has empathy, and rapport: “Because it wasn’t that long ago I was sitting in their shoes, wondering what I was going to be doing with my life.
“I can see the uncertainty in their eyes…and tell them about the opportunities we have in racing, the opportunities they have in the Army. It’s a lot of fun for me to be doing stuff like that….to reach out to these kids who are unsure what they’re going to do with their lives.”
Particularly, perhaps, at such an unsure moment in his own.
NASCAR rookie leader Regan Smith, DEI teammate with Aric Almirola, Martin Truex Jr., and Paul Menard, is awaiting his fate too (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images for NASCAR)
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
Casey Mears, as widely anticipated, will indeed be the driver the next three seasons for Richard Childress’ new fourth Sprint Cup team, and the Winston-Salem car owner also announced Saturday that Mears will be getting the Jack Daniel’s sponsorship, and that Clint Bowyer will be getting the new General Mills’ sponsorship.
The crew chiefs and team rosters will be announced later, Childress said.
Mears is currently driving for Rick Hendrick’s Kellogg’s sponsored team, and there were apparently corporate conflicts with General Mills, hence the sponsorship swap.
The 30-year-old Mears, nephew of four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, passed up a possible Indy-car career to focus on NASCAR, and he has been on the Cup tour six years now. His lone win came in last year’s Coke 600 at Charlotte.
Bowyer has been on the Cup tour since 2005, and he currently leads NASCAR’s Nationwide tour.
Casey Mears gets the nod to join the Richard Childress camp, as teammate next season with Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Hendrick hired Mark Martin last month to take Mears’ place on the Alan Gustafson team next season. Mears was 27th in the standings, while his three teammates in the top-10, when Hendrick decided in late June to change his 2009 lineup.
Childress said “There have been a lot of questions asked about what we are doing. One I get a lot is about the points on Clint’s team—are we changing them, what are we doing? The points will stay with that team.”
That will guarantee Mears a spot in the field the first five races of 2009, but Bowyer will have to make those fields on speed. “We have all the confidence in the world in Clint and his team that we’re going to be okay there,” Childress said.
“It beats beating dents in the body shop,” Bowyer said.
Another question – how or whether to reshape the teams for next season. “Like we do every year at this time, we start evaluating where we are at with all of our teams,” Childress said.
But first Childress pointed out he wants to ensure his current three teams all make the championship playoffs: “We have our work cut out the next three weeks. That is what we are concentrating on right now—to get in the chase…and then we want to be a championship contender.
“We’ve got to get through that, and once we do we will start addressing other things.
“We are evaluating every direction, and we have some really good plans. But at this time we’re not going to say what we are doing there because we have to concentrate on the next three weeks.”
Mears says he’s confident he’ll fit in: “We are going to get along just fine. I am a big team player, that is how I like to race. I have seen a lot of success with it in what I have done with other teams.
“It’s a good match for everybody. From the outside looking in, it feels like it is going to be a good fit.
“There are still a lot of details to work out, about who is going to be with who. But now that we have gotten to this point, we can evaluate that.
“Once the dust settles, we will be working out a lot of those details.”
Clint Bowyer won’t have the top-35 starting guarantee when 2009 kicks off(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Michael Waltrip, who will apparently lose sponsor UPS to rival Jack Roush at the end of the season, will have Aarons as a partial Sprint Cup sponsor for 18 races next year with David Reutimann, who is currently sponsored by UPS. No word on the rest of the sponsorships.
NASCAR promoters are hard at work promoting tickets for the 2009 tour, even with the 2008 tour barely half over. The latest – Talladega Superspeedway, now selling tickets to next April’s 500, with the October 500 still to be run.
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NASCAR newcomer Aric Almirola: hoping to stick in the big leagues (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)