Wednesday, January 4, 2012

NASCAR offseason picks up again as Almirola gets rare second chance

The holidays passed and the NASCAR offseason picked up right where it left off with two more driver signings and another team shutting down.

David Reutimann landed with Tommy Baldwin Racing for the 2012 season, TRG Motorsports couldn’t find a driver or sponsor and will cease to exist, and Aric Almirola jumped back into the Spring Cup Series with the #43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford.

It’s good to see Reutimann get a ride after being fired very late in the season from the #00 Michael Waltrip Racing team and it’s not good to see another team leave the sport, but the biggest winner of the week is Almirola.

Sure, the #43 car currently doesn’t have a sponsor and could struggle to finish in the top 20 in the points standings next year, but at least he will race in the Cup series once again.

Almirola’s first shot in a Cup ride came in 2007 when he ran six races in the #01 U.S. Army car that he shared with Mark Martin. His best finish was 26th.

The next year he doubled his number of races as he and Martin again split duties to fill the empty #8 seat left by Dale Earnhardt Jr. when he went to Hendrick Motorsports. Almirola did record a top 10 with an eighth-place finish at Bristol in the spring that season.

Since then he bounced around to several different teams and ended up only racing in the Nationwide Series in 2011. He was successful at that level, however, and finished fourth in the points standings while driving the #88 JR Motorports car.

Regardless of his results, Almirola should feel like the luckiest guy in the sport. Not many drivers get a second chance at the Cup level, especially with a top-20 team.

While Almirola drives on Sundays, former Cup drivers such as Reed Sorenson and Elliot Sadler will likely remain in the Nationwide Series and only drive on Saturdays. Others such as David Ragan and Brian Vickers are also on the market and still don’t have a ride lined up.

Since Almirola got the job, the attention will now turn to how successful he can be in that car. Remember, the #43 car isn’t in the NASCAR elite anymore, and it hasn’t been for nearly two decades. Although the car has 198 victories, it hasn’t really come close to reaching Victory Lane since 1999 when John Andretti won at Martinsville.

A.J. Allmendinger put together the best season the #43 car has had since Bobby Labonte finished 18th in the points standings in 2007. Allmendinger finished 15th in the points standings in 2011 and 19th in 2010. Before that, the #43 hadn’t finished in the top 20 in points since Andretti’s year in 1999.

Overall, there probably shouldn’t be very high expectations for the #43 car in 2012. The vicious cycle between mediocre runs and horrible runs could easily continue for that team this season, especially if it has trouble finding sponsorship.

It’s an unfortunate situation because the organization just came off of its best season with two cars in the top 20 in the points standings, and now it is back to the same struggles it dealt with the previous season when it almost went bankrupt.

Maybe we’re overstating the negative of this situation. Maybe the organization has potential sponsors about ready to sign on and Almirola will follow in the footsteps of the five first-time winners of 2011 and burst back onto the scene.

In any case, Almirola has a Cup ride, and that’s more than a lot of other Cup-winning drivers can say at this point.

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