Perseverance pays off for Almirola

Aric Almirola idles in standstill traffic on I-485 in Charlotte, N.C., slightly bewildered by the volume of vehicles around him, en route to a television studio south of town to rap about his Truck series win at Michigan International Speedway.

He's on the phone in his car, in a driving rain, recalling the past year, one that included countless forced smiles and uncomfortable handshakes and baseless conversations with uninterested race car owners, and excruciating pride-stripping parades through garages all over America.

"There's plenty of things I'd rather be doing than being a spectator at a race," Almirola said. "For a race car driver, that's miserable. That's hell."

Few things strip a race car driver of his, um, mojo, quite like the search for wheels. Especially guys who've had a shot and lost it. It is often a necessary evil, and goes something like this: Pay your own way to the racetrack, show up in the garage in street clothes, tuck your tail between your legs, mope around while pretending not to mope until you happen upon a car owner or team executive, approach the car owner or team executive, shake his hand while trying not to notice the eye-roll, and remind him how badly you want it.

One thing about racing: Out of sight is most certainly out of mind.

"Sometimes it's good. Sometimes it's extremely humbling," Almirola said. "You've got to swallow your pride. It's really easy to give up on that and be like, 'The hell with it, I'm not going to the racetrack. I want to go to the beach.' But I've always felt like, for me, if I wanted any chance to be able to continue to [race] that I needed to be at the racetrack, and show them that I cared and wanted to be there."

It wasn't easy. He needed emotional propping up from his agent and his family and, most often, his fiancée, Janis Goss.

"She was the one sitting next to me on the couch when I was pissed off or pouting," Almirola said. "She'd put her arm around me and say, 'Whatever we've got to do we'll do it, but we'll do it together.'"

Almirola has endured a mostly unorthodox path to Camping World Truck Series contender. He was once the next big thing at Joe Gibbs Racing, an original JGR developmental project who ascended quickly through the Late Model and Truck ranks, and eventually took the No. 20 Nationwide Series car to Victory Lane.

Or so says the record book, anyway.

While serving as a standby driver for Denny Hamlin at The Milwaukee Mile in 2007, Almirola was forced to start the event when Hamlin's helicopter couldn't land. Hamlin had been in Sonoma, Calif., practicing his Cup car, and was too late to take the green flag. So Almirola did. From the pole he'd earned, no less.

For nearly 60 laps he ran among the top three. Then the call was made to replace Almirola with Hamlin. Hamlin strapped in, stormed through the field from a lap down and won the race. He did the burnout. He sprayed the beer in Victory Lane. Almirola saw none of that. He wasn't there. He'd already left.

Almirola got the trophy for the win, but he doesn't have it. Doesn't want it. The way that evening unfolded was such a letdown, he told JGR to give it to crew chief Dave Rogers, or another deserving team member.

As far as he was concerned, his name may as well have been "Asterisk Almirola."

"To have my name in the history books as the race winner already," he said, "and to know it wasn't mine and there's an asterisk next to it saying, 'Aric Almirola's the winner, but he wasn't in the car when it crossed the start/finish line.' Man, that killed me. It really took its toll on me."

It ultimately proved irreparable. One month later, Almirola left JGR and went to Dale Earnhardt Inc. to drive the No. 01 Army Chevrolet. It got no easier there. DEI soon merged with Ginn Racing, which had Mark Martin as a driver on a part-time basis. Almirola would share the No. 8 with Martin in 2008. Basically, he drove when Martin chose not to.

The following year, 2009, seemed to be Almirola's big chance. Martin had departed for Hendrick Motorsports, and Almirola was set to run a full schedule in the 8 car. He made it all of seven races before funding dried up and the team was shelved. He made sporadic starts here and there, including 16 Truck series races for Billy Ballew Motorsports. But for the most part, Almirola spent the remainder of 2009 on those abysmal garage strolls in search of a steering wheel to hold.

"I never thought it wasn't worth it. I always thought it was very worth it," Almirola said of his meandering trek to the present. "But there was many a time I thought it wasn't in the cards for me."

(How's this for irony: On Almirola's personal Web site, on the main page, up at the top to the left is a pair of aces -- a clever play, certainly, on his initials, AA. Interesting choice for the young man who says so openly that, until very recently, he presumed racing may not be in the cards for him.)

You can kick me. You can throw me out of the garage. You can take my ride away from me, but I'm still going to show up. I still want to be there.

-- Aric Almirola

He had to make it work. His family had sacrificed enormously for his career. He couldn't give up on that. Plus, he couldn't do anything else. It was always about working on and driving race cars.

"Hell, I went to high school and the whole time I was there I skipped school, or left early to go work on my race cars to get ready to go race the next weekend," Almirola said. "That's all I've ever done. The thought has crossed my mind, 'Maybe it's time to go a different route and do something else.' But to be honest with you, I don't know what I would do. I don't know what else I could do."

Enter Ballew, the wreck-it-or-win-it Truck series owner for whom Kyle Busch was winning often. Ballew once told one of his young drivers: "Drive that SOB off in the corner! If it doesn't stick, well, that's why we brought a backup!" Says Almirola: "All he wants to do is win."

Ballew saw promise and desire in Almirola, and so long as money was present he'd have a truck for Almirola to drive. A full-time sponsor was found, and for the first time in his career, Almirola would drive the same equipment for the same team with the same crew.

"To get in that rhythm has been really good for me, and it's the first time I've ever had that in my whole career," Almirola said. "It's been eye-opening."

And very successful.

Last month, Almirola took Ballew's No. 51 truck to Victory Lane at Dover International Speedway. He claimed the points lead at the time, becoming the first driver of Hispanic heritage to top a national series in NASCAR. Finally, he was in the seat when his ride sped under the checkers. Finally, his name belonged in the record book.

"I wanted to win a race so bad in NASCAR, to prove that every opportunity I'd gotten from the very beginning wasn't a waste of somebody's time, and wasn't a fluke," he said. "That was the biggest thing for me. It was huge when I finally got that checkered flag at Dover, to feel like, 'Hey, I got this one. There's no asterisk next to my name. Nobody can ever take this away from me.'"

But he still wasn't satisfied. When he got home and watched the replay, he realized Busch had run out of fuel and Elliott Sadler had blown a tire and Ron Hornaday and Todd Bodine had had issues. They were all threats to win the race. Almirola could hear the critics taunting him.

"It's so easy to be a skeptic, and be like, 'Eh, I won. But under circumstances I won,'" he explained.

Not so at Michigan last weekend. He flat outdrove them. For the first time ever, Almirola has solace in victory.

"That was the biggest relief for me," he said. "I won Dover and finally got that checkered flag -- and I was actually in the car when it crossed the line. But there was still room for people to be skeptical and be naysayers. I feel like after Michigan, it's a lot harder for people to be naysayers."

And now, sitting in traffic in the rain, Almirola is a walking country music song: He got his job back and his truck back, and his girl stuck by him through it all.

And those garage walks veered hither and yon, but eventually led to Victory Lane.

"That's where it happened for me -- just letting people know I'm not going to give up," Almirola said. "You can kick me. You can throw me out of the garage. You can take my ride away from me, but I'm still going to show up. I still want to be there. I still want to be a part of it."

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