Since the end of the Sprint Cup season in November, the sport has kept itself in the news by the number of moves that have been made and are still being made. Few organizations, and this includes some of the biggest, have escaped finding themselves in the middle of the conversations that surround what the sport likes to refer to as the silly season.
You have to remember that as long as there is at least one owner looking for a driver, the chances of another seat or two becoming available are highly likely. Richard Petty Motorsports entered 2012 looking for a driver for its fabled #43 team as A.J. Allmendinger left in December to take over the ride that came open at Penske Racing when Kurt Busch and the organization decided to part ways.
The opening at RPM will never be mistaken for one of the top rides in the sport, but it is part of a two-car operation that gets its equipment from Roush-Fenway Racing that makes it a competitive ride. The organization had a very respectable year in 2011 with Allmendinger finishing 15th in the points and teammate Marcos Ambrose winning the Watkins- Glenn race.
David Ragan, who raced for Roush-Fenway last season, was thought to be the front runner to take over for Petty, but in this sport there is always more to a hiring a driver than just what is on his resume.
Petty, it seems, is always looking for sponsorship to keep his two-car deal going, so it was no surprise when he listened to the wants of sponsors Smithfield Foods and the Air Force. Those two apparently wanted Aric Almirola, who had been the driver of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s #88 Nationwide Team.
The 27- year- old Almirola doesn’t come to RPM without any Cup experience. In 2007-08 he split time with Mark Martin driving for Ginn Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. He started the following year with Earnhardt Ganassi, but that ride didn’t last through the season as it was shut down due to a lack of sponsorship.
2010 found Almirola racing in the Camping World Truck Series and it was there that he really started showing what he could do behind the wheel. He posted two wins that season and finished second in the points. He also ran a few Cup races for Phoenix Racing and RPM.
He was hired to drive for JR Motorsports last season, where he put together a very consistent year on his way to a fourth-place finish in the points. Even though Almirola had a year left on his contract with Earnhardt’s Chevrolet team, that seat becomes open as RPM gets support from Ford and it would not want one of its Cup drivers to be in a Chevrolet in the Nationwide Series. That ride then became the most coveted seat available in NASCAR.
That seat wasn’t vacant long enough to get cold as JRM wasted very little time in naming Cole Whitt to drive its #88 Chevrolet. The move came somewhat as a surprise as there are still several drivers looking for a ride for next season that have resumes that include both Nationwide and Sprint Cup experience.
Whitt will be coming to JRM after spending last season driving in the Camping World Truck Series for owner Stacy Compton. The team raced with very little sponsorship, but Whitt was still able to finish ninth in the points and, maybe more importantly, finished every race but two, with both of those two DNF’s coming because of engine failure.
It was his ability to take care of equipment and to always be running at the end of the race that caught Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s attention. He joins a two-car operation at JRM that also has Danica Patrick as a driver, and the organization will field a third car at selected races this season.
PIT NOTES: Rusty Wallace has announced that he is shutting down his two-car Nationwide operation that fields cars for Steve Wallace and Michael Annett. The former Sprint Cup champion said that there wasn’t enough sponsorship to fund both teams at a competitive level. Wallace said he is still trying to put together a deal where his son Steve could compete this year, but that he wouldn’t fund it out of his own pocket.