20 years after leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, Aric Almirola returns to his NASCAR roots

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Aric Almirola received a phone call from Joe Gibbs late last September.

The 39-year-old Cup Series veteran had been planning to retire from full-time Cup racing at the end of the season after he returned to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2023. Almirola wanted to spend more time with his family.

Almirola knows his son, Alex, now 11, and 10-year-old daughter Abby are almost teenagers and have spent too much time living in motorhomes. And he understands the grind of being a racecar driver and wants to help younger competitors who have been in his position.

After a meet-up following that initial phone call, Gibbs sat down with Almirola during last fall’s Charlotte Roval weekend and reminded Almirola about when his NASCAR career began as a development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing — 20 years ago.

“Coach talked a lot about his years coaching football, and when he had veteran players with really talented rookies, those were really successful teams,” Almirola said Thursday about that conversation with Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls coaching the NFL team formerly known as the Washington Redskins. “When those veteran guys would really pour into the young, talented rookies and help coach them up along with the coaches, it made the overall team better.

“That’s the direction he has for me. He wants me to put myself in their shoes since I was there already, and be a mentor, a coach.”

Nov 5, 2023; Avondale, Arizona, USA; Alex Almirola, son of NASCAR Cup Series driver Aric Almirola during the Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway.
Nov 5, 2023; Avondale, Arizona, USA; Alex Almirola, son of NASCAR Cup Series driver Aric Almirola during the Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway.

Almirola will pilot JGR’s No. 20 Toyota GR Supra in roughly 15 Xfinity Series races in 2024, splitting time with John Hunter Nemechek, who will compete full-time in Cup with Legacy Motor Club. Tyler Allen, who’s served as lead race engineer for Kyle Busch (including his 2019 Cup championship) and Christopher Bell, will be the crew chief.

At JGR, J.D. Gibbs, who died at age 49 in 2019 from complications following a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease, always told his father he had high hopes for Almirola.

Almirola never saw a clear path forward at JGR and spent more than a decade between Richard Petty Motorsports and Stewart-Haas. But J.D. Gibbs always kept an eye on Almirola.

When Almirola was racing for other teams, Gibbs’ son would always come up and hug Almirola and his wife, Janice. He was at Aric and Janice’s wedding, even though it was long after Almirola left JGR.

NASCAR driver Aric Almirola, center and his wife, Janice Almirola, right, walk the red carpet to the Catwalk for a Cause casino night and charity event at the Statesville Municipal Airport on Wednesday, May 18, 2017. The proceeds are going toward cancer research.
NASCAR driver Aric Almirola, center and his wife, Janice Almirola, right, walk the red carpet to the Catwalk for a Cause casino night and charity event at the Statesville Municipal Airport on Wednesday, May 18, 2017. The proceeds are going toward cancer research.

“You can look at my career, and you can look at my stats. My stats don’t say that I am the most accomplished race car driver,” Almirola said. “My stats don’t say that I’m a superstar Cup champion. But I’ve been around this sport for a long time.

“Being a professional race car driver means more than just getting paid to drive a race car. So, sharing what that looks like with these young guys, they’re teenagers, they’re kids, and I was that kid. I was that teenager. I showed up to Joe Gibbs Racing at 19 years old.”

Having some time removed from his earliest days in the sport, Ryan Truex knows Almirola’s wisdom will be a great resource for JGR’s youngest drivers.

Truex remembers traveling in his brother’s motorhome for two races when he was about 13. It was Martin Truex Jr.’s second year as an Xfinity driver, and his younger brother was always around NASCAR while growing up in South Jersey but didn’t have much interest in being a driver himself.

The motorhome was on its way to the race in Indianapolis and decided to stop at a go-kart track. Martin’s driver told a young Ryan, who’d never raced before, that he was going to put on a helmet and drive a go-kart.

Ryan Truex felt the speed, and that experience made him convince his parents that he wanted to race. He’s driven for a variety of teams across different series over the last 14 years — and feels having Almirola in the building will be key in helping younger drivers along that path.

“He’s a Cup winner, and not many people in this world can say that,” 31-year-old Ryan Truex said in an interview with The Charlotte Observer. “For the young guys coming in, having him, I think it’s just gonna be a huge kind of database to lean on and learn.”

Aric Almirola celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the 1000Bulbs.com 500 NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Talladega Superspeedway, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, in Talladega, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Aric Almirola celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the 1000Bulbs.com 500 NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Talladega Superspeedway, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, in Talladega, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

JGR will have four cars in its Xfinity lineup this season: Almirola and Nemechek’s No. 20; Sheldon Creed in the No. 18; Chandler Smith in the No. 81; and Truex, William Sawalich, Joe Graf Jr. and Taylor Gray splitting No. 19.

Sawalich, 17 years old, will run in three Xfinity Series races at the end of the season after turning 18 on Oct. 3, beginning with Homestead-Miami. The full-time ARCA Menards Series driver moved to the Charlotte area from Minnesota, where he remembers initially just wanting to be able to drive a car before starting out in quarter midgets at Elko Speedway.

“I used to watch him on TV when I was little,” Sawalich said about Almirola. “To be able to be side-by-side with him on the same team, I think that’s pretty cool at my age.”

Aric Almirola, driver of the #43 STP Ford, right, and team owner Richard Petty take part in pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 6, 2015 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Aric Almirola, driver of the #43 STP Ford, right, and team owner Richard Petty take part in pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 6, 2015 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)