Aric Almirola is a man of many hats.
Sometimes it’s a powder blue cap with a bold, white No. 43 beaming at you. Sometimes the 43 is on the side of the hat giving way to the Smithfield Foods logo, one of Richard Petty Motorsports’ many sponsors. Sometimes it’s a black hat with a U.S. Air Force logo spreading its wings across the front.
And sometimes it’s a Tampa Bay Rays hat — a distant reminder of the sport Almirola took up when he was barely big enough to hold a bat.
“I played baseball from the time I was 4 all the way until high school,” Almirola said.
Although the Tampa native might have picked up a glove long before he put his foot to a gas pedal, there was never a question in his mind where his true allegiance was.
“I grew up watching my grandfather race dirt sprint cars, and I just loved it,” Almirola said. “And when I went to the racetrack I got a sense of excitement that I couldn’t get anywhere else. When my grandfather retired from racing, when I got the opportunity at 8 to go drive a go-kart, the very first time I drove a go-kart I knew right away that I was hooked.”
So whenever baseball and racing would collide on the weekends, Almirola’s choice was clear: the racetrack.
Many times he would even make the two-hour trip to Daytona International Speedway, watch from the grandstand and dream what it would be like to race there.
Last Sunday, 22 years after first climbing into a go-kart, Almirola not only got to race on his home track, he also won, netting the first NASCAR Sprint Cup win for the Cuban-American and putting Richard Petty Motorsports back on top for the first time since 1999.
Almirola’s underdog victory came during a wild, drawn-out Coke Zero 400 that saw two major wrecks take out most of the field and was ultimately called early because of relentless rain.
Almirola was in the lead with 48 laps remaining, watching the radar with his crew members and praying for more rain.
“I was trying to keep my emotions in check,” said Almirola, who is one of 11 drivers with a win this season, giving him a good chance to earn one of the 16 spots in the Chase for the Cup. “And I didn’t want to get too excited that the race might get called and I would win, because I kept telling myself, ‘If it doesn’t get called and we go back racing, we still have a really fast car, we’ve already proved that, we’ve been out front, we’ve been leading.’ ”
Fortunately for Almirola and his team, after 56 minutes of hoping and praying, officials called the race.
Ironically, it was the rain, too, that denied Almirola’s biggest fans to be there celebrating with him.
“I had some friends and family come on Saturday night and they sat in the stands and then when it rained out they packed up and drove the two hours back to Tampa,” Almirola said. “And then they didn’t feel like coming back Sunday morning.”
Improbable as Sunday’s win was amid thunderstorms and red flags, it fell in line with much of Almirola’s career.
When he attended UCF in 2002 and 2003 to study mechanical engineering, it was a ploy to grab hold in the racing scene by any means possible, even if it meant working in the pits and not behind the wheel. On a whim, Almirola sent out a résumé that landed him a tryout with a driver diversity program spearheaded by Joe Gibbs and Reggie White.
“They called me back just a few weeks later and told me that if I was willing to move to North Carolina, that I had a job to come drive their late model,” Almirola said. “And that’s what I did. So from that point forward I’ve just been fortunate enough and blessed to have opportunity after opportunity, and I’ve made the most of most of them.”