It wasn’t long after he came to his decision that he was approached by Joe Gibbs Racing owner Joe Gibbs about returning to the organization where his NASCAR career began nearly 20 years ago.
Gibbs thought Almirola would be an excellent role model and mentor for JGR’s growing cache of younger drivers, but he also wanted him to compete in the Xfinity Series – as a full-time driver in fact.
Photo by: Ben Earp / NKP / Motorsport Images
Race winner Aric Almirola, RSS Racing, Ford Mustang
“Coach first asked me about racing full-time,” Almirola recalled Wednesday at JGR. “I told him, ‘I don’t think I can tell Janice (his wife) I’m retiring from full-time racing to go full-time racing.’
“So, we talked through that and we kind of settled on what would be ideal for me, which was about 15 races.”
But in addition to competing this season with one of the top Xfinity organizations in the sport, Almirola found the role as driver coach and mentor especially enticing.
And he’s wasted no time getting right to work.
“I’ve spent a lot of the time already with the drivers individually away from the shop and then also here at the shop. Just building that relationship with them and being a guiding light for them,” Almirola said.
“I’m certainly not going to tell them how to drive a race car. They’re all unique and they are all talented and they all have their own driving style. I remember when I was a kid, I wanted information and I wanted to be able to ask questions.”
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Almirola had opportunities over his career to seek counsel from several Hall of Famers, including Tony Stewart, Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson. He believes those relationships were pivotal to his longevity and would like to provide similar assistance.
“Not that I am prideful, but I feel a sense of pride in knowing I get to help. It gives me purpose. It gives me an opportunity to take what I’ve done for the last 20 years and try to speed up the learning curve for these guys or help them make one less mistake than I did,” Almirola said.
“Even on a personal side, just helping them navigate life and that work/life balance and what that looks like. I remember myself sitting in their shoes and I remember how much it meant to me when somebody offered advice or offered to help or encouraged me.
“Those are very important things for a race car driver.”
Almirola’s new role comes as JGR finds itself with a large contingent of young drivers this season, not to mention its Cup drivers Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs, who are both in their 20s.
The organization will field four full-time Xfinity teams this season as well as an ARCA program.
Sheldon Creed and Chandler Smith will compete full-time in Xfinity while the other two teams will utilize multiple drivers including Almirola, John Hunter Nemechek, Joe Graf Jr., William Sawalich, Taylor Gray and Ryan Truex.
Outside of Almriola, the oldest driver in the group is Truex, 33. The rest range in age from 17 (Sawalich) to 26 (Nemechek).
Despite having not yet turned a lap on track, Steve de Souza, JGR’s executive vice president for Xfinity Series/development, said Almirola’s addition has already been felt in the organization.
“He’s already met with all of our drivers and we’re creating an agenda now for him in our driver’s meetings,” de Souza said of Almirola’s involvement. “What he has learned and what he’s been so exceptional in, is not only on the track but off the track as a person.
“As we call know, with the social and digital media today, it’s so critical that you play the parts right on that. He’s done a really, really good job and sets an excellent example for our drivers.”
Almirola said he has always approached a new NASCAR season with enthusiasm and the chance for “new opportunities and new challenges.”
This one, he admits, is a little more special.
“I’m as excited about this year as I have been in a long, long time,” he said. “This is just different by having the opportunity to focus on more than just myself.”
Photo by: Logan Whitton / NKP / Motorsport Images
Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Mustang Smithfield celebrates after winning