Aric Almirola grew up in Tampa watching his grandfather, Sam Rodriguez, excel as a sprint car racer in the 1980s and 1990s. He remembers Saturday nights at the East Bay Raceway watching "my hero" win many races and then having his picture taken with his grandfather in Victory Lane.
Now, 19 years after first racing around in go-carts at age 8, Almirola is in a once-in-a-lifetime situation in his own career. The former Nationwide Series standout will drive the legendary 43 car — the number made famous by Richard Petty — in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series this season .
"On a personal level it's huge because it's something that I've dreamed about doing since I was a little kid, racing in NASCAR at the highest level on the Cup series," said Almirola, 27. "It's a really big deal. And then obviously on a professional level, with as competitive as the equipment has been over the last few years, to work with all these guys here at Richard Petty Motorsports, with (crew chief) Greg Erwin and all the guys on this 43 team, I'm really excited about that. And I'm really excited about driving No. 43. It's got a lot of history behind it, and it's got over 200 wins. I'm hoping that one day I'll be able to add to that win column in that No. 43."
Almirola has made 35 starts in the Sprint Cup series, most recently in 2010 when he finished the last five races of the season in the No. 9 Ford. He had a career-high fourth-place finish at Homestead.
"We saw a lot of potential in Aric and have watched him closely at JR Motorsports throughout," RPM chief executive officer Brian Moffitt said. "Richard always said if we had an opportunity that he was somebody he would like to be in the 43. We got everybody together here at Richard Petty Motorsports and went down the list and Aric was the top choice for us."
Although the decision to leave JR Motorsports last month for Richard Petty Motorsports was difficult, Almirola is hopeful it will provide a level of stability that will allow him to focus strictly on racing, improving as a driver — and winning.
"That was the one big determining factor on coming over here," Almirola said. "I feel like when I made the decision to come over here to race that 43 car, I don't feel like I'm going to have to worry about anything else other than myself. I feel like it's going to be up to me to perform at a high level and for me going into this season the biggest thing that I'll have to worry about is adapting to the racetrack and in my race car each and every week."
Almirola began racing in go-carts before joining the open-wheel modified ranks in 2000. He debuted in the NASCAR truck series in 2005 and began his Nationwide Series career in 2006. After more than a decade in this business, Almirola understands that change isn't always easy. But from what he has experienced so far, he expects the transition to run smoothly.
"I don't think there will be major adjustments," he said.
Almirola plans to start the season at the Daytona 500, which holds many special memories for the Tampa native.
"Daytona has a tremendous amount of special meaning for me," he said. "I grew up going to a lot of races there with my grandfather and my dad and my uncles. We would go there and watch the Daytona 500, and back then it was the Firecracker 400, so I've been to quite a few races there. There are always great fans, and I always wondered what it would be like to make a lap around that race track as a little kid. And to get the opportunity to do that over the last few years and then now to race in the Daytona 500, and not only to race there, but to be driving the 43 car, I'm really excited about that."