Is Aric Almirola Best NASCAR Driver For Richard Petty Motorsports' No. 43 Car?

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 04: Aric Almirola, driver of the #88 Grand Touring Vodka Chevrolet, looks on during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway on November 4, 2011 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Almirola is reportedly poised to replace AJ Allmendinger at RPM. What's behind the decision?

It was reported prior to Christmas weekend that Aric Almirola is the "leading candidate" to replace AJ Allmendinger in Richard Petty Motorsports' No. 43 car.

Of all the free agent NASCAR drivers currently on the market, the Charlotte Observer reported a deal is imminent between Almirola and RPM and will be announced after Jan. 1.

My immediate reaction was not exactly favorable. Aric Almirola? It's not so much a commentary on Almirola's talent, but on the other drivers available.

If you're looking for a driver with solid Cup experience, Brian Vickers, David Ragan and David Reutimann have all won Sprint Cup Series races and have proven to be capable of running up front when given a good car.

But if you're looking for someone unproven who has potential, the Landon Cassill/Michael McDowell/Trevor Bayne/Ricky Stenhouse Jr. group (there are many more) would probably come cheap and bring plenty of energy.

For some reason, Almirola's name seemed unexpected and kind of surfaced out of nowhere. Maybe it's because people figured he already has a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports, where he was fourth in points last year driving the No. 88 car.

Or maybe it's because Almirola hasn't made many headlines lately and just completed a relatively quiet season with no wins and didn't really contend for the championship.

Almirola was once a red-hot name. His infamous 2007 "victory" at Milwaukee when Denny Hamlin arrived late to the race actually helped put him on the map (or at least into the public eye), and he got a part-time Cup ride with Ginn Racing that turned into a shared seat with Mark Martin at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

When DEI merged with Ganassi, Almirola was tabbed as the full-time driver of the No. 8 car. But after the first seven races of 2009, sponsorship ran out and the 8 car – along with Almirola's ride – disappeared.

In 2010, Almirola start-and-parked a few times for Phoenix Racing, but then got what may turn out to have been his big break – driving the No. 9 car for RPM after Kasey Kahne left the team with five races remaining in the season.

As questions about RPM's future swirled around the organization, Almirola had four finishes of 20th or worse but then suddenly drove to a fourth-place finish at Homestead.

That legitimate top-five result in the Sprint Cup Series apparently has remained in the mind of Richard Petty, and Almirola may now end up in the No. 43 next season.

It's worth noting, too, that Almirola is likely bringing sponsorship money to the ride. And though we don't know the sponsor yet, the assumption is it can't be that much money – certainly not enough to fund a full season.

But it may be enough for a few races, which perhaps is better than nothing right now and gives RPM something to sell around.

Primary sponsor Best Buy left RPM for Roush Fenway Racing recently, and the No. 43 car only had 11 races with sponsors other than Best Buy last season. Allmendinger left for Penske Racing after he realized RPM wouldn't be able to put a program together.

So even if Almirola brings some money, RPM certainly doesn't have all the funding it needs. Is the plan to just announce Almirola as the driver and then build the program around him?

Another question: Why would Almirola leave his Nationwide gig for the uncertainty of RPM? What's going on behind the scenes with this move that we don't yet know about?

The answers are unclear for now, just like the decision-making process that led everyone to this point.

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