tampabay.com

Home isn't always comfy

Both area NASCAR drivers, Zephyrhills' David Reutimann and Tampa's Aric Almirola, say they want to stay, but....

By BRANT JAMES
Published June 30, 2007


Tampa Bay's two NASCAR drivers say they would prefer to keep their current addresses for 2008. And so begins the test of loyalty so prevalent in racing.

Tampa's Aric Almirola, 23, said he remains content and committed to Joe Gibbs Racing despite his Busch Series misadventure Saturday in Milwaukee, when he was ordered out of the car to make way for veteran Denny Hamlin.

Zephyrhills' David Reutimann, 37, said he would prefer to return to Michael Waltrip Racing's Nextel Cup program next season. But he's still awaiting an offer.

Almirola's situation appears more stable for several reasons. First, he's still under a long-term contract. Though "very flattered" by recent Internet rumors of a jump to Ginn Racing's No. 01 Chevrolet, he said the speculation was baseless. Then there's gratitude toward a team that took him aboard as a developmental driver when his Reggie White Motorsports diversity team folded after the former NFL player died in January 2005.

"I've been (at JGR) for a while and I plan on being there for many years to come, " said Almirola, who was credited with his first NASCAR win when Hamlin took the checkered flag Saturday. "They've given me a lot of opportunity the last few years and I'd love to return the favor to them."

Almirola is targeted, according to team president J.D. Gibbs, for the fourth Cup car his team hopes to field in the next few years. Almirola made one Cup start in a research and development car March 11 at Las Vegas, finishing 41st.

A second attempt to qualify at Charlotte was scuttled when the team was unable to prepare a proper car, vice president Steve De Souza said.

"Since NASCAR's re-evaluated their situation for 2008 and decided to go to Car of Tomorrow full time, we started to see it was kind of silly to run the (current car) ... because that is not the future of our sport, " Almirola said. "We're looking at running a couple, two, maybe three more races at the end of the year, but they'll be COT races because that's where we need to build as far as research and development goes."

JGR seeks sponsorship to run Almirola full time in the Busch Series next year.

Reutimann signed a two-year contract to race Busch cars for Waltrip but is under a one-year deal for Cup. At the time, that seemed like a safety valve for Waltrip Racing, but with the team's mighty struggles in Toyota's first-year Cup effort and unwanted publicity surrounding Waltrip's cheating scandal at Daytona, it could give the rookie an escape. Team officials, he said, have yet to broach an extension.

"Me personally, I am not really out looking around, " he said.

But others could be looking at him, especially considering his performance for a Waltrip Busch program that has been markedly more competitive because of the quality of the engine Toyota has developed in the series.

A chronic dearth of Cup-ready talent and Reutimann's genial personality and aptitude could make him a fit for a team seeking a veteran. At second in the Busch Series standings, he's proving he belongs.

Reutimann has had to qualify on time all season in the Cup series because his No. 00 Toyota had no owner points coming in and therefore was outside the top-35 guaranteed-spot boundary. He has failed to qualify for five races and is 41st in points but had his best finish in Cup (15th) at Michigan two weeks ago. He ran inside the top three in the waning laps at Talladega before a blown engine dropped him to 32nd.

"If we can get things going and get a good combination going, yeah, I can go out there and compete with anybody any given weekend, " he said. "It doesn't matter who they are. Doing the stuff in the Busch Series kind of reaffirms that."

He still professes loyalty to a family that gave him his break at NASCAR's highest level - Michael's brother, Darrell, was his Truck Series owner from 2004-06.

"Michael gave me my first shot and I appreciate that and I'm pretty loyal to the people who brought me, " he said. "I don't know. I think we have a good Busch program and I think our Cup program is getting better. I like the people I am around, so yeah, that's kind of why I'm not looking. I'm hoping I can come back here."