Aric Almirola is to Dale Earnhardt Inc. what Aaron Rodgers was to the Green Bay Packers (until Brett Favre retired), what Jimbo Fisher is to the Florida State football program. He's next in line to a man who shows little sign of slowing down anytime soon. Certainly, the 24-year-old from Tampa knows his partner in the No. 8 Chevrolet will eventually retire. Mark Martin, 49, has been contesting a part-time schedule for the past two seasons, but he's not going gently or quickly into the sunset. So Almirola waits. He says he doesn't regret his decision a year ago to leave Joe Gibbs Racing, the team that gave him a chance in its developmental program, for Ginn Racing, which was absorbed within months by DEI. There's no guarantee he'd be in Sprint Cup full time by now, but it's possible Tony Stewart could leave and create a vacancy. Almirola says he's happy with the progress he's making at DEI, compiling test data at tracks around the country and pacing through laps at Virginia International Raceway's road course as he readies for his fourth Sprint Cup start of the season next week at Sonoma, Calif. "He needs to be in the car every week," DEI vice president John Story said. "Hopefully, that day will come soon. … We think Aric is a future star, and we need to figure out how to manage this thing." The St. Petersburg Times talked to Almirola about his situation:
What's the difference in skills needed between racing on an oval and a road course?
The biggest thing I've been having trouble with is figuring out how much to be smooth and how much to be aggressive because it's a fine line between being smooth and being slow, and being aggressive and running off the course.
How tough has it been racing just four times in NASCAR's top three series this season?
(I'm) really antsy. There's not a whole lot I can do about it, so I just sit there, watch the races and try to do the best I can as far as learning.
Can you learn by watching Martin or do you need to drive?
Mainly you have to do it to learn as much as you can, but it is a help to go to the races and sit there and watch and listen to how the practice or races and stuff go on the radio.
Was it tough to get out of the car after racing three times in the first nine weeks, including the eighth-place finish at Bristol?
I was dying to get back in a race car, but I've done some odd stuff here or there, raced a Late Model at Eldora (in Tony Stewart's Prelude to the Dream charity event) last week. … I've done a lot of (Car of Tomorrow) tests for DEI here lately, so it's going good.
I have nine Cup races left. I think after this now, my longest time without racing is two or three weeks, so that will be a lot better.
Are you still glad you made the decision to leave JGR?
Yeah, very happy. Everybody at DEI has been working really, really hard. Really, honestly and truly, DEI has been doing a really good job at burning the midnight oil.
Has Martin clued you into his future plans, because they directly impact yours?
I think he's still planning on doing the semiretired deal (in 2009), but we're working through that stuff. Right now we're just trying to focus on what we've got going on this year, mainly.
We've talked about it briefly and still there are a lot of unknowns and stuff that has to be talked about and worked out.
That said, you're at an age where you need to be running full time in the Cup series, right?
I would (like to be), but at the same time if I was going to share a race car with anybody, I don't think they could pick a better teammate than Mark Martin. He's been around the sport a long time. He's an awesome race car driver. He's a really great person, so to be able to not only be a teammate with him but to hang out with him and spend a little time with him is pretty cool.
You have said you were the target of some racism at small North Carolina tracks while you were in JGR's developmental program. In light of Mauricia Grant's suit against NASCAR alleging racial and sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination, and you being Cuban-American, is NASCAR a hostile environment for nonwhite males?
No. I think now more than ever it's more accepted. You have myself, you have (Colombian) Juan Pablo (Montoya). There's more guys now than ever that are not your traditional NASCAR driver (including Dario Franchitti of Scotland). I think NASCAR is doing a great job. Just the other day was the first I'd heard of that whole deal, so I don't know much about it, can't speak on behalf of anybody. As far as it goes for me, I've felt nothing but embraced and its been really good. … I've never experienced anything like what those allegations are all about.