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Year in Review: Almirola used '11 to prove he may be the one to beat in '12

December 26, 2011, Bill Kimm, NASCAR.com

Year in Review: Almirola used 2011 to prove he may be the one to beat in 2012

Aric Almirola may not have been in contention for 2011 rookie of the year honors in the Nationwide Series, but make no mistake, this past season was the 27-year-old's rookie campaign and it was a successful one.

From 2006-2009, Almirola was a nomad, traveling from team to team, trying to find the right fit. In 2010, it all came together. Almirola finished second to Todd Bodine for the Truck Series championship for Billy Ballew Motorsports in just Almirola's second full-time season in the series. On the Nationwide side, Almirola made eight starts for JR Motorsports and secured a full-time ride in 2011 -- something Almirola was more than ready for.

Season statistics

Wins 0
Top-fives 7
Top-10s 18
Poles 2
DNFs 2
Laps Led 101
Avg. Start 11.9
Avg. Finish 12.1

"For me, it was really clear and cut that if I came to JR Motorsports, that we had chances to win races and we were going to go run for the championship," Almirola said. "When I came here and talked to [co-owner and general manager] Kelley [Earnhardt], [co-owner] Dale [Earnhardt Jr.], [crew chief Tony Eury Sr.], and [crew chief] Tony [Eury] Jr., it was very cut and dry. It was we are a race-winning team and we expect to go out and win races and contend for a championship and that's what I want to be a part of."

Things to smile about

Almirola was a contender for the championship all season long. He was unable to reach Victory Lane, but seven top-fives and 18 top-10s kept Almirola in the top seven of points for 33 of the 34 weeks. Almirola ended up fourth on the season and with just two DNFs, showed he has what it takes to compete for the championship.

The Windy City was a special place for Almirola in 2011. In June, Almirola grabbed his first pole of the season at Chicagoland and that led to his first top-five on the year with a fourth-place run.

A month later, Almirola went on a tear with four consecutive top-fives at New Hampshire, Nashville, Indianapolis and Iowa. Those finishes secured his position in the top five in points, a position he would hold the rest of the season.

Reasons to frown

Richmond was a race Almirola would like to have back. In the spring race, Almirola looked to be on the verge of winning for the first time in 2011. He led seven laps and with seven laps remaining, Almirola was running second to Denny Hamlin. But when the caution came out for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Almirola ran out of fuel before making it to pit road. Penalties on pit road dropped Almirola from the lead lap and the No. 88 finished a disappointing 14th, one lap down.

Rivalries are never good for a championship contender and there was one driver Almirola just couldn't seem to avoid in 2011 -- Brian Scott. Almirola and Scott were involved in a crash that took both drivers out of the race at Darlington, but neither was at fault. Throughout the summer, the duo traded paint here and there, but nothing that seemed to be more than just racing. Then at Richmond, their feud went to a new level.

Going into Turn 3, Almirola got into the back of Scott and the contact sent Scott hard into the wall. Scott was none too pleased with Almirola and let him know it on the track. Almirola went on to finish seventh and thought the incident was in the past.

But following the race at Kansas a few weeks later, Scott got into Almirola's face on pit road and voiced his displeasure with Almirola's style of racing. The conversation ended with Scott issuing a subtle threat to Almirola.

"He thinks I wrecked him on purpose at Richmond, and he still hasn't gotten over it," Almirola said at Kansas. "It's racing. It's short-track racing at Richmond, and he can't move on from that. We fire off the race [at Kansas], and I run him down, and I get to him, and he runs me on my door, trying to spin me out. He's mad that I don't I give him any room on the race track. He races way over his head."

The duo avoided any conflict the remainder of the season, but it could be a feud that builds in 2012 and beyond.

Looking into the crystal ball

The 2012 season could be a huge one for Almirola. The one constant Almirola has displayed throughout his young career is the ability to improve the following season and that doesn't bode well for the rest of the Nationwide field asAlmirola ended 2011 with an average finish of 12.1. Going into 2012 with the No. 88 team intact, including veteran crew chief Eury Sr., Almirola should be considered on the short list of championship favorites in 2012.

"I can always look back and see things we could have done better throughout the year," Almirola said. "We'll take this year, learn from it and come back next year even stronger."