Aric Almirola tried to dissuade Tony Stewart from telling the story. He didn’t want to hear it again, and Almirola doesn’t like when it’s brought up.
But Stewart wanted to make it clear that Almirola’s path to becoming the new driver of the No. 10 Smithfield Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing – which was officially announced Wednesday morning – was years in the making.
“I remember when Aric was leading the [Xfinity Series] race at Milwaukee and had qualified on the pole in Joe Gibbs’ car and led every lap,” Stewart began.
“Do we really have to keep talking about that?” Almirola interjected.
That June 2007 race weekend had the Xfinity Series in Milwaukee while the Cup Series raced at Sonoma. Almirola qualified and started the Xfinity race in place of primary driver Denny Hamlin, whose plane made it to Milwaukee only for his helicopter to be unable to land in time for the green flag. Almirola – who eventually ceded the car to Hamlin – is credited with the Milwaukee win, even though he did not complete it.
Stewart continued: “I want to make sure they haven’t forgotten about that because Aric dominated that race and then had to get pulled out early, but the important part that was kind of overlooked was here’s a guy that didn’t have a lot of time in an Xfinity car that qualified on the pole and had led every lap of the race and not just led it, but dominated it at that point. I think a lot of people have forgotten that about Aric and how much talent he really has, and that’s something I’ve never forgotten. I’ve always had that in my mind.
“He’s a great friend of mine and I knew that if we had the right opportunity to get him in the system that I think we can do great things together. That time is now and we’re excited to finally give him that opportunity to showcase his talent.”
That race left an impression on Stewart, as it was something he mentioned repeatedly throughout Almirola’s introductory news conference. A three-time Cup champion, Stewart has always felt Almirola deserved the right opportunity, and a championship-winning organization like SHR provides that.
“I know what he can do if he gets in a car that is set up the way that he likes it,” Stewart said. “He’s proven that in the past, so to give him that opportunity, hopefully, we can give him a car that he’s comfortable with and he can go out and show his talent.”
Almirola is a logical choice for Stewart as the organization reshuffles for 2018. Other drivers, such as Matt Kenseth, are still without rides, but Stewart said putting together a deal with Almirola and Smithfield had been in the works long before Kenseth became available.
“For this car, we thought this was the perfect fit. I was real excited, from day one, to try to get Aric in this car,” Stewart said.
He’s excited for his friend. And friendship is the second component of what made Stewart-Haas and Almirola come together.
After Almirola showed himself well at Milwaukee, he and Stewart began to develop a relationship through the years. It helped the two were teammates at Gibbs, where Stewart was competing full-time and Almirola was a development driver.
One of the first things Stewart noted Wednesday was how long he and Almirola have known each other, that they are great friends and go to dirt races together.
“We don’t put any more effort into this than the other three cars, but this is something that I have a personal attachment to because of our relationship together and our past being teammates,” he said. “I know Aric’s talked about how excited he is. Obviously, any time we bring a new driver or sponsor to SHR we’re excited about it, but this has a personal attachment that even makes it stronger.”
Listening to Stewart talk, Almirola could do nothing but suppress a smile and bask in the moment. It was Christmas morning coming early for him, and Almirola said signing with a championship organization was what he has always been working toward.
“Like [Stewart] said, it goes back 14 yeas when I got to Joe Gibbs Racing. … Tony kind of took me under his wing. He befriended me and took me under his wing, plus he hated to go testing, so he would send me with [Greg Zipadelli] to go testing,” Almirola said.
“I spent a lot of time down in Florida at New Smyrna Speedway and Lakeland testing Tony’s racecar and running a lot of laps, so he’s really been a great friend and somebody I’ve really looked up to in the racing world, and to have this opportunity to drive for him is very special.”