The departure of Kurt Busch from Penske Racing as the 2011 season ended set the stage for driver moves that have continued and may do so until the 2012 Daytona 500.
AJ Allmendinger suddenly found himself taking over the seat for Busch at Penske. The former open wheeler will race the No. 22 Dodge in 2012. It was a move that literally happened over the course of a few short days. Allmendinger’s move however leaves a vacant seat at Richard Petty Motorsports, namely the famous No. 43. But not having a driver is only part of the problem for Petty Motorsports; its primary sponsor, Best Buy has left for Roush-Fenway Racing.
For a short time, even before Allmendinger left, Kurt Busch’s name was being thrown around as the next driver. He himself however ended all such talk and last week announced he would be part of Phoenix Racing for 2012.
The seat remains open, for now. Several drivers are in search of a home for 2012 and at least one, David Ragan, has been mentioned as a possibility to join RPM.
Shortly before NASCAR went quiet for the Christmas weekend, another name was floating about; that of young driver Aric Almirola. Almirola first gained some attention as one the first drivers in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program in 2004. After several seasons as a development driver, he quit Joe Gibbs Racing in 2006 after a disputed Nationwide race in Milwaukee and eventually landed at JR Motorsports.
Almirola has scored wins in the Camping World Truck Series to go with the controversial Nationwide Milwaukee win. He also has a short history with Petty, having competed in five Sprint Cup races at the end of the 2010 season after Kasey Kahne left. Those starts included a surprising top five finish at the season ending race at Homestead but never led to any further full time Sprint Cup opportunities.
Now an opening exists at RPM and Almirola is being considered for it. When the day is done however, Almirola would be the wrong driver to put in that opening. While not considered a top tier team, Petty has shown they can win races. But winning races in NASCAR takes experience from everyone, something Almirola is short of on the Cup side. RPM also desperately needs sponsorship money, something Almirola doesn’t have. Drivers such as Ragan, or David Reutimann have scored victories in the Cup series and while neither are a Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, both have enough experience and savvy to know what it takes to attract and keep a full time sponsor.
Aric Almirola might be able to mature enough to handle the conflicts he’s been a part of off the track and gain enough experience to move up to the Sprint Cup level someday. His time may indeed come, that time however isn’t now.
UPDATE: Richard Petty signs Aric Almirola
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