St. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Aric Almirola was perfectly at ease on the baseball field chatting with Tampa Bay Rays players during batting practice, and playing catch just prior to the team's Tuesday night home game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
A native of nearby baseball-crazy Tampa, Almirola went to the same high school and played Little League ball on the same fields that produced baseball All-Stars Dwight Gooden and Gary Sheffield. So quite naturally the former standout shortstop had always dreamed of stepping onto the diamond during a Major League Baseball game.
That dream, however, took a hard left turn years ago and Almirola instead returned to his hometown and delivered a first-pitch strike Tuesday as one of NASCAR's most promising racers, driving for the sport's most iconic team, Richard Petty Motorsports.
"That's pretty special I get to do something like this after taking a completely different course in life,'' said Almirola, who impressed the crowd and even the Rays players with a very respectable ceremonial first pitch as part of a promotional stop for the July 6 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. "I thought racing was my first love and gave me the biggest adrenalin rush and it's what I chose over baseball. My family was maybe a little disappointed because everyone thought I was a pretty good ballplayer. Maybe I would have made it to the big leagues, who's to say?
"The really cool thing is I made it in racing and I'm one of 43 at the Cup level which is a testament to my family and those that supported me along the way. And because of that, I get to come back and do cool stuff like this. This is something I dreamed about as a little kid.''
And Almirola's reality in NASCAR's big leagues seems to be working out too.
A quiet but mostly consistent effort in the No. 43 Ford has Almirola ranked 16th in the standings entering Saturday night's race at Kentucky Speedway. He's 25 points out of a guaranteed Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup spot in the top 10 and 17 points behind 12th-place Paul Menard.
Four consecutive top-10 finishes this spring put him as high as eighth place in the standings after the May 5 Talladega Superspeedway race. And in only his second year full time in Cup with RPM, Almirola likes his chances at making the Chase.
"At the beginning of the year before the Daytona 500 started, nobody would have ever dreamed of picking the 43 car to have a shot at making the Chase, much less actually making the Chase,'' Almirola said. "So I think that speaks volumes of where we're at as a race team and how great a job our guys have been doing. And we're having a lot of fun.'
"Something we have to remember as a race team is we are not a premier team, but we have to strive to get to that level. I think for the resources we have, to be battling -- 16th in points and we've been in top 10 -- we have a legitimate shot coming down the stretch to make the Chase."
After watching Martin Truex Jr. celebrate in Victory Lane at Sonoma Raceway last weekend, snapping a 218-race winless streak, Almirola was reminded of what a victory means. And how hard they are to come by.
Almirola's first NASCAR win came in 2007 in a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Milwaukee as a part-time driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, which enlisted the first-generation Cuban-American to the team's diversity program.
In 2010, Almirola won twice in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, scoring a head-turning 21 top-10 finishes in 25 starts and finishing runner-up in the championship.
"They (Joe Gibbs Racing) called him to Charlotte for a test while he was a freshman at University of Central Florida (2006) and he hasn't been back since,'' his stepfather and former baseball coach "Topper" Drawdy said while proudly watching Almirola during Tuesday's pre-game warm-up.
Those early opportunities with Gibbs set Almirola up for his current job with Petty, a chance for both Almirola and the team to take it to the next level.
"You look at a guy like Martin (Truex) who has tremendous amount of talent, a great race team, teammates that have won, he's got everything that it takes to win races but yet it just proves how hard the sport is to win,'' Almirola said. "For me, that's a huge-eye opener as to how hard it is to win at this level. So when you get that opportunity, you make the most to win you have to cherish it because you don't know when that will happen again.
"I think that gives us something to look forward to. Who knows how long it will be for me to win that first race, but hopefully it won't be that long.''
Almirola turns clinical and serious when dissecting what he thinks that will take. He says his team perhaps got complacent after reeling off the string of top-10s a couple months ago and has since had to refocus and re-intensify its efforts if they are to remain serious contenders.
Almirola ran among the top 10 early at Sonoma and feels his 20th-place finish wasn't indicative of how strong they were on the day.
And he has good personal history at the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway, with a pair of top-10s in the Truck Series there and a sixth-place in his first race at the track in the Nationwide Series.
"We have a group of guys that have a never-give-up attitude,'' Almirola said. "We don't have the most resources in the garage area and we know that, which means we have to have people with tremendous amounts of heart because we have to get the most of all the parts and pieces we do have, and we're able to do that.
"Truthfully no, before the season I did not think we had a shot at making the Chase. I thought we could run well. I thought we'd have our moments of brightness and it would be awesome to crack through and get to Victory Lane, but never did I think we'd have a legitimate shot of the Chase.
"Here we are, almost 10 races away from Chase and we still have not only a legitimate shot, but a real shot to make it. That's something nobody expected but we all thought was possible.''
Petty's famous No. 43 hasn't been to victory lane since John Andretti won at Martinsville Speedway in 1999. So a win next week at Daytona, where Petty drove to his historic and final 200th victory, would be the ultimate for the Florida native Almirola.
"I want to be that guy that ends that streak. I want to be that guy that gets it there. To be honest, I'd take that over making the Chase. I know my sponsors probably wouldn't agree with that and some of the guys on the team would have mixed emotions on that. But I think getting that 43 car back to Victory Lane with Richard would be so special, an awesome day. Our sponsors deserve that.''
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