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Tampa-born driver eyes quick Cup ride

Denny Hamlin showed Joe Gibbs Racing that a young driver's path to Nextel Cup could be shortened with long strides. Tampa-born Aric Almirola attempts to follow those footsteps beginning next week when he tests a fourth team car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the possibility of making his debut at NASCAR's highest level there on March 11.

By BRANT JAMES
Published January 25, 2007


CONCORD, N.C. - Denny Hamlin showed Joe Gibbs Racing that a young driver's path to Nextel Cup could be shortened with long strides. Tampa-born Aric Almirola attempts to follow those footsteps beginning next week when he tests a fourth team car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the possibility of making his debut at NASCAR's highest level there on March 11.

Almirola, 22, is scheduled to run at least 20 Busch Series events for JGR and attempt to qualify for as many as four Cup races in a No. 80 Chevrolet research and development car. Almirola, who had 25 truck and nine Busch starts last season, knows his job is to gather information to benefit the Cup programs of Tony Stewart, J.J. Yeley and Hamlin, who also was born in Tampa. Perhaps that's why he's so calm at the prospect of making such a leap.

"If it works out, it works out, and if it doesn't, it'll be good experience going to the track and practicing and stuff," Almirola said. "We're going to try to help Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole, but at the same time, our focus is trying to help ourself get into the race."

Performance during the test will not necessarily decide whether he attempts to qualify. Sponsorship still has not been finalized.

"He's done a great job for us and we want to get him some time in a Cup car," team president J.D. Gibbs said. "He's shaken down a Car of Tomorrow for us at Lakeland and it's time to take the next step."

In 2004, Hamlin made five truck starts and one in Busch at age 23, ran a full Busch season in 2005 and finished third in Nextel Cup last season, the second-highest finish by a rookie in series history.

Fixable?

 

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon said though Teresa Earnhardt has a tough job in running Dale Earnhardt Inc., "she's making a big mistake" in not recognizing that stepson Dale Jr. can "write his own ticket" and is "really in the power position" in their contract negotiations. That said, he wonders if their public travails will allow a compromise.

"If he's smart, he'll do what's best for him and I hope that's at DEI, I really do, for all of them up there because I think they are a tight-knit group and family," Gordon said. "And I think that would be the nicest thing. Is that reality? I think it's gone too far. When it gets ugly in the media, it's usually very, very difficult to rebound from that."

Ready to fight

Nextel Cup team owner Jack Roush is worried about Toyota's entrance into NASCAR this season. He's concerned the manufacturer will outspend everybody and change the financial landscape for team owners and sponsors. But during NASCAR's annual media tour in Concord, N.C., Roush said:

"I don't back away from a good fight. We're going to war with them and they should give us their best shot. ... Toyota will not find that established teams will wither in their path as they have seen elsewhere."

But Roush is working on obtaining reinforcements. He shares engine programs with Robert Yates Racing and is in negotiations about selling 25 to 50 percent of the team to Fenway Sports Group, headed by Boston Red Sox owner John Henry.

Times wires