Aric Almirola had just finished middle school when he faced a decision that would shape the rest of his life.
He could stick with baseball, like his stepbrother, who turned playing at Hillsborough High into a scholarship to USF. And maybe he could get a shot at pro ball, like his stepdad 30 years before.
Or he could get into racing, like his grandfather, a sprint car champion and dirt track owner, and keep trekking to tracks across the country in search of a big break.
"I wasn't going to play baseball unless I really dedicated my life to it," Almirola said, "and I wasn't willing to do that."
So Almirola chose racing, a decision that put the Tampa native on a path that has made him one of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series' biggest surprises of 2013 headed into tonight's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
The choice wasn't easy.
Almirola, 29, grew up going to spring training games in Plant City. He watched his stepbrother, Ben Drawdy, become one of the Bulls' all-time hit leaders as a middle infielder from 1998-2001.
Almirola played shortstop and pitched, and developed such a strong arm and level head that his stepfather and coach, former Reds farmhand Robert Drawdy, thought he could pursue a pro career.
"He was the talk of the neighborhood, for sure," his stepdad said.
But Almirola also felt a tug from racing through his grandfather, Sam Rodriguez, who built Dirt Devils Speedway in Land O'Lakes. His family was dedicated enough that it drove to Daytona Beach every Christmas and slept in trucks and trailers so it could race go-carts there the next morning.
As Almirola began to excel in both sports, his schedules overlapped. His stepdad and grandfather clashed as all-star games competed with races.
"It was just too much," Ben Drawdy said.
Almirola knew from watching his stepbrother how intense baseball could be at Hillsborough and how hard he would have to work to become a starter, let alone a college player. He also knew how much he loved driving.
"I thought racing was my first love," Almirola said. "It was the thing that gave me the biggest adrenaline rush."
At the risk of disappointing his family, Almirola ditched baseball heading into high school to focus on the track. Five years later he got a call from Joe Gibbs asking him to join NASCAR's diversity program, and Almirola, who is Hispanic, made his Cup debut at age 23.
As his baseball opportunities became playing catch with his cousins at his North Carolina home and throwing out the first pitch at a Rays game last month, his racing career has taken off.
Almirola finished 20th in points last year in his first full Cup season. Driving the iconic No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, his result was solid considering the uphill battle his small team faces in a sport driven by powers such as Penske and Hendrick.
"We don't have the most resources in the garage area," Almirola said. "We know that, which means we have to have people that have a tremendous amount of heart. We have to get the most out of the parts and pieces that we have."
Almirola has done that midway through this year. He already has matched last year's results with four top-10 finishes and eight runs in the top 15. Only four drivers — Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex — have finished on the lead lap more often than Almirola (13 times in 17 races).
Nine races before the Chase for the Championship, Almirola is tied with three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart for 16th place, 22 points behind Joey Logano for the 10th and final guaranteed spot in the Chase.
"At the beginning of the year, before the Daytona 500 started, nobody would have ever dreamed of picking the 43 car to have a shot at making the Chase, much less making the Chase," Almirola said. "I think that speaks volumes of where we're at as a race team."
And serves as a reminder that the road he chose as a teenager was the right one.
Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.