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So Will Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s famous No. 8 be sidelined this season? And what may happen to Aric Almirola?

Aric Almirola: Deserves a break (Photo: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Mulhern


   Aric Almirola, one of the most talented newcomers to this sport in quite a while, is twisting slowly, slowly in the wind, as car owners Chip Ganassi and Teresa Earnhardt struggle to find money to finance one of NASCAR's most famous numbers – the legendary No. 8, that Dale Earnhardt Jr. made such a name for himself in, particularly right here in the Daytona 500.
   Almirola was apparently on the way out of the picture entirely just a few days ago, with Bobby Labonte figured to get that ride. Then Labonte decided the grass was greener over at Doug Yates'.
   That put Almirola back in the car…but maybe only for the Daytona 500, he worries.
   Confusing, chaos?
  "If I could only tell you…." Almirola says wearily. "It is. It's confusing, it's exciting, it's everything all at once. 
   "It's been a basket of emotions, that's for sure.
    "But I'm supposed to get to come to the Daytona 500 and race, and that means so much to me. I've been dreaming about this since I was a little kid."
   So he does indeed have a deal to run in the Daytona 500?
   "Yeah….I mean….Gosh, I don't know," Almirola says slowly.  "I mean, I think so, yes.
    "But every time I think I know something, I realize that maybe I don't. 
    "But as far as I know, yes, I'm going to race in the Daytona 500 in the No. 8. 
    "Now whether that changes or not, that's beyond my control.
    "I just do what I'm told on a daily basis. I'm strictly an employee.
   "My goal and my expectations are to race, and that's what I firmly believe I'll do. 
    "But with the financial situation right now, there's a lot up in the air."

   For Earnhardt Jr. himself, this situation is particularly emotional. No. 8 was not only his long-time number but it was a number his father drove at times, a number his grandfather drove at times.
   "I do have an emotional connection to it," Earnhardt says. "I hope that car can run all year."
   Almirola and Mark Martin shared that ride last season, with Tony Gibson running the show. But Gibson and his crew have moved over to the Tony Stewart-Ryan Newman camp.
   "Aric had a good group of guys last year, but they moved on," Earnhardt said.
   "So much has changed in the last six months in this sport. In the last 18 months a bunch has changed.
   "I just hope we can get all settled down somehow and start having a little bit of order around here, and start rebuilding….to where everybody is getting some stability financially, to where we can have more expectations than questions."
   Indeed, driving around the north Charlotte area, where this sport is headquartered, there are so many huge race shops now empty, with 'For Lease' signs on the front lawn.
   "It's very difficult, very challenging," Earnhardt says. "And the mood is such…..well, you just drive around and see all these development properties that have screeched to a halt….
   "I don't know what's going to happen.
   "I'm as interested as anyone here to see where we're all going to be a year and a half from now.
    "I'm on top of all that stuff; I read and study and try to understand the best I can what's happening and why, and how our sport is affected…and should it get worse, how would it be affected.
   "I have a lot of business connections in this sport, and with the things I'm doing, it's smart for me to be aware.
   "I don't know how to get somebody a job though. It's almost impossible right now."

   Almirola, riding so high last summer, with some great runs, in his part-time gig with Martin, was at every event, and when not driving, then watching intently, learning.
   And now….
     "I don't think many people would have ever expected the things that have happened over this off-season, not in a million years. And they've happened," Almirola says softly. 
    "So I'm not going to speculate on anything.
    "Chip and Teresa have to do whatever makes financial sense to them…and hopefully for me that means run 36 races. 
    "Now saying that: I don't know. 
    "I don't get to look.  I'm not privy to look at their financial statements, so I don't know what they're going to be willing to do and not do without a sponsor. 
    "The moral of the story is we need a sponsor badly. That's the moral of the story: we need sponsorship dollars."
    And of course there probably is no such money, at least not in the traditional sense of a full pre-season contract.
   Almirola figures a lot of teams this season will be trying to make it just race to race, with a patchwork quilt of sponsorships.
   "It's been brutal, to say the least," Almirola says of the sponsorship hunt.
   "There's no new money coming into the sport. And the same sponsors that have been floating around, going from team to team, everybody knows who they are, everybody has been talking to them.
   "The sponsors are not stupid -- they know how bad the economic times are, and they know they're going to be able to buy more for their dollar right now.
    "So they're shopping around. 
   "But it takes a lot of money to run a really competitive race team, it really does."
    Week to week? That's the picture Almirola is painting.
    "I could be totally wrong, because I'm not in the office when they make the phone calls," Almirola says. "But if it were me sitting at their desk, well, I don't think it's a situation where you're asking for $18 million anymore (for the full season). I think you're just asking for money to go from race to race, really and truly. 
    "That's what it's about now -- getting from one week to the next. 
    "Now is not really a good time to ask somebody for $18 million. 
    "It's a lot better time to ask somebody to help us get through the next few races.
    "This industry is not hiding from the economic times, that's for sure. 
    "Times are down; they're not good. And everybody in our race team, everybody in our racing industry is going to pay for that -- everybody from drivers to crew chiefs to owners to people that work on the cars.
   "It's a tough time. People are worried to death to have a job these days. 
    "I think there's close to a thousand people in North Carolina that know how to work on race cars who don't have jobs. 
    "And if you've got a job, you're just excited as hell to have it."

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