Aric Almirola admits he suffered nervous moments before and after signing with Stewart-Haas Racing.
The unknown will do that to a person no matter the career. For Almirola, that anxiety came in both professional and personal ways.
For the past six years at Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola felt nervous. He had established himself as a serviceable NASCAR driver, with an average finish ranging from 17.9 to 23.3 over his six seasons in the Cup series.
But he wondered.
“Quite honestly, for the last six years, I’ve gone to sleep not knowing [my talent level],” the 33-year-old Almirola said in an interview with ESPN.com. “Am I average? Is the equipment average? Is it us together being average? Why are we not achieving the success we want to achieve?
“And so I was honestly nervous that my career would end, and I would never have a chance to drive the best equipment in the garage to see how I stack up against the other competitors.”
The time of reckoning begins this week with qualifying for the Daytona 500. Almirola replaces Danica Patrick at SHR in the No. 10 car. He has a rookie crew chief, former Kurt Busch engineer John Klausmeier, and most of the crew that won the Daytona 500 with Busch last season.
Of the drivers poised for a breakout season, Almirola has to consider his chance.
“For me, I [first] wanted to make it as a professional race car driver,” Almirola said. “I did that. Then it was about getting to the Cup series. I did that.
“Now it’s about being the best in the Cup series, and this is the prime opportunity for me to go out and try to be the best in the elite series of stock car racing.”
Almirola has spent time at several organizations. He competed in 17 races as part of Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2007-08 before it merged with Chip Ganassi Racing. He competed in seven races at Ganassi in 2009 before the team shut down his car due to lack of sponsorship.
He went truck racing in 2010, winning two races and finishing second in the standings for Billy Ballew. After finishing fourth in the Xfinity standings in 2011 driving for JR Motorsports, he returned to Cup at RPM, hoping that would be the place where he could thrive. He earned his first (and only) Cup victory in 2014, in the July race at Daytona, but has had mixed results since.
Almirola freely says that “absolutely I think this is my chance to go out and shine,” but that type of comment is almost cliché in motorsports. Almirola has driven for some quality organizations. Didn’t he feel like this before?
“No,” Almirola said. “I’ve never felt like this. Ever. Ever.”
Almirola landed the ride partly because he has a longtime relationship with team owner Tony Stewart, who drove a Cup car at Joe Gibbs Racing when Almirola drove for JGR in the Xfinity Series.
His teammates feel he will come in right away and contribute.
“Everybody has just kind of forgotten about his ability,” said SHR’s Kevin Harvick. “When he was at DEI, if you think about it, he had an opportunity to win a couple of those races and was competitive.
“Aric is just a calm guy. He’s working his butt off. For us, we’re going to reap the benefits of the fact the car is going to run faster and be more competitive and do all the things that you want to see it do in order to be able to look at the notes and all the things that go with it to help evolve our company with four cars instead of three.”
Harvick has no doubt Almirola will shine in his new ride, believing Almirola’s mediocrity at times wasn’t talent-related.
“He’s going to be competitive,” Harvick said. “He already knows after the first test, that it’s not him. It was the cars he was driving.
“As you see that confidence, that confidence will continue to build. He’s going to fit right in and do a great job.”
With no questions about his car, Almirola also says he has no questions about his health. He said he feels his back is 100 percent, that he doesn’t think about it unless someone asks about the injury he suffered last May at Kansas, keeping him sidelined for seven points races.
“Honestly, if I didn’t feel like this was going to be the opportunity for me to go and be successful, I would have just called it quits,” Almirola said. “I’m not chasing money or fame. I honestly don’t care that much about either one of those things.
“I miss taking my kids to ballet recitals or soccer or baseball games on the weekends. … If I didn’t think I had a chance to go out and be successful, I would obviously think about what’s next in life.”
And that’s where he was nervous after signing with SHR. His son, Alex, was born in September 2012, in Almirola’s first year at RPM. His daughter, Abby, followed about 14 months later.
“All they’ve ever known as long as they’ve been alive, they have pictures of them standing or us holding them next to a Petty blue No. 43 car,” Almirola said. “I was really nervous how the transition would go with them and what their reaction would be.”
Alex wears an SHR shirt to sleep. Abby yells when counting when she gets to 10.
“It’s crazy how kids adapt,” Almirola said. “I think they feed off our energy in the house. … Everything is about Stewart-Haas Racing now and the No. 10.”
The nervousness for Almirola appears to have subsided. He can’t afford to have any nerves. Now it’s time to perform.
“When my time is done at Stewart-Haas Racing, I will have known I have been in the best equipment in the garage area and I will either have a bunch of trophies to prove it or I will walk away from the sport saying, ‘Eh, I was just average,'” Almirola said.
“I have every belief in myself that we will go out and be successful.”