SHR Makes It Official: Patrick Out, Almirola In The 10

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 9 2017

Aric Almirola will take the wheel from Danica Patarick next year at Stewart Haas Racing. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Aric Almirola and his primary sponsor will join Stewart-Haas Racing’s revamped Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series lineup for the 2018 season in the No. 10 car currently wheeled by Danica Patrick.

Almirola, currently driving the No. 43 Ford Fusion for Richard Petty Motorsports, will compete in SHR’s No. 10 Smithfield Foods Ford beginning with the season-opening Daytona 500 in February. Patrick, one of several Cup drivers still searching for rides next season, will make her final two starts in No. 10 at Phoenix Raceway this weekend and the season-ender at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19.

“Obviously, there are no secrets in our sport,” Stewart, co-owner of the team with businessman Gene Haas, said during a news conference Wednesday in Mooresville, N.C. “There were spies everywhere, as you know, but extremely proud on behalf of everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing to announce that Aric is going to be behind the wheel of the No. 10 Smithfield Ford next year.

“I’m real excited to have him on-board.  I’ve known Aric for a long time. We were teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing for a brief period and we’re really good friends, too. We go to dirt races together and hang out and I think this is an opportunity we’ve both been looking forward to for a very long time. We’re excited to have him on-board and extremely proud to have Smithfield on-board with us as well. They’ve been extremely awesome to work with at this point and a lot of fun. They’re a great group of people and obviously have a lot of great products that I thoroughly enjoy, as you can see, and I thoroughly will enjoy them for a long time.”

Almirola termed the announcement an early Christmas gift. “This is so cool,” Almirola

Danica Patrick’s race days as a Cup Series driver for Stewart Haas are down to two. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

said. “This is an unbelievable day for me to have this opportunity. I’ve worked my whole life, my whole career for an opportunity like this _ to come and be a part of a championship organization. I think you guys have won two of the last six championships and going for a third this year at Homestead, so I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity and to continue my relationship with Tony.

“Like he said, it goes back 14 years when I got to Joe Gibbs Racing as a Diversity Driver in their Late Model program. I would go to the Cup races and just because I was still a super-fan 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 Zippy (Greg Zipadelli) to go testing.  I spent a lot of time down in Florida at New Smyrna Speedway and Lakeland testing Tony’s race car 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.

“And then to continue my relationship with everybody at Smithfield Foods is amazing. We’ve had six great years together and we continue to build on that relationship and we’re looking forward to competing for wins and championships. We feel like this is the place to do it, right here at Stewart-Haas Racing. They’ve obviously proven that they can win races week-in and week-out and contend for championships and I couldn’t be more excited. 

“The news is out and I feel such a weight lifted off my shoulders and I’m ready to get to Daytona. I can’t tell you how many drivers are going to take the checkered flag at Homestead and be ready to relax and kick back, and I’m chomping at the bit. I can’t wait to go race this race car.”

John Pauley, Smithfield’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, said the company was anticipating an uptick in results for Almirola at SHR.

“We’re a performance-driven company,” Pauley said. “We’ve never made any excuses about that. We’ve had tremendous success in building our brands the last five to six years while we’ve been involved with NASCAR and Aric’s knowledge of our company, our products, our culture is something that we were determined to keep. We love being a part of the NASCAR sporting world and we want to compete as well on the track as we’ve done off the track, so we couldn’t be happier that this relationship happened.”

SHR’s lineup is led by 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Ford, whose victory Sunday in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth punched his ticket into NASCAR’s Championship 4 finale at HMS on Nov. 19. Almirola finished 15th on TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile oval.

Clint Bowyer drives the No. 14 Ford formerly wheeled by Stewart, a three-time Cup Series champion.

Meanwhile, Stewart said Sunday at TMS talks continue with Kurt Busch over his return to the No. 41 Ford in 2018. “We’re still working on that,” Stewart said in reference to Busch,

Team owner Tony Stewart says talks with Kurt Busch continue.
(RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

who won the 2004 Cup championship driving for Roush Fenway Racing. “Obviously it’s pretty busy right now. We’re still working on the No. 41 right now. That’s our goal, to have Kurt in that car for next year.”

In addition to his current Cup duties, Almirola, 33, drives the No. 98 Ford Mustang for Biagi-DenBeste Racing in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series on a part-time basis. Almirola is nicknamed “The Cuban Missile” _ a bow to his Cuban heritage.

Almirola’s 2017 season was interrupted when he suffered an acute compression fracture to his T5 vertebra in a grinding, multi-car accident at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway on May 13. The injury, which has a standard healing time of eight to 12 weeks, saw Almirola recover in eight weeks. Throughout the recovery process, Almirola underwent physical therapy, swam and tested in simulation and on-track environments.

“King” Richard Petty, NASCAR’s first seven-time Cup champion and its all-time winner with 200 victories, announced on Oct. 26 that RPM had hired  Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. to drive the No. 43 car next season. Wallace, 24, will become the first fulltime African-American driver in Cup’s “Modern Era” as he also competes for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors beginning with the Daytona 500. Petty co-owns RPM with business entrepreneur Andrew Murstein.

Stewart said Billy Scott will remain as crew chief of the No. 10 next year.  An edited transcript of Stewart’s presser with Almirola follows:

QUESTION: Aric, what do you think of the way the car looks?

ARIC ALMIROLA: “It looks fast just sitting there. That’s so cool to see that and to see Smithfield’s corporate colors on there and to see my name on that door is just really special, and I can’t wait, like I said. I’ve watched these race cars go around the racetrack. I just addressed the shop before coming in here and I told all the guys in the shop that I’m salivating. I watch their race cars every week and see how fast they are and see how competitive they are week-in and week-out and I’m so excited about this opportunity to get in this race car. It’s an amazing-looking race car.”

QUESTION: Mr. Pauley, what’s it like for you to see your corporate colors on an SHR car?

JOHN PAULEY:  “As Aric said, we’re very pleased with the color scheme and the way it appears. These are the colors that represent our brand, mostly the black and the gold. It represents premium, it represents quality, it represents NASCAR, it represents fast, so we’re excited.”

QUESTION: Tony, this scheme harkens back to some of the Sprint Cars you’ve driven, right?

TONY STEWART: “That and one of my favorite Home Depot cars that I drove was actually a black-and-white car at Richmond, so I’ve always liked black-and-white race cars. The car I drive, my Sprint Car, is actually the base colors are black-and-white on it, so this is a car that I think will be easy to see on the racetrack. Every year when everybody shows up at Daytona and we see what paint schemes are you see how many of them are close to yours and it makes it harder to see on the racetrack, but I think this is gonna be a car that’s gonna be very easy to see on the racetrack, especially because it’s gonna be up-front this year too, so we’re excited about that.”

QUESTION: Aric, what’s it like to re-set your career at SHR?

ARIC ALMIROLA: “It’s exciting. I think for me to have this opportunity, I’ve said it already, it’s like Christmas morning for me. I didn’t sleep at all last night just so excited about coming and talking about this opportunity, but to have a chance at a fresh start. I’ve put a lot of thought into this and when you’re a kid or when I was a kid I dreamed about just being a professional race car driver, and at 19-years-old I turned into a professional race car driver.

“I actually got my first paycheck to drive a race car and I felt like I was at the top, and then as I did that for a while then you transition your goals and so after becoming a professional race car driver I was like, ‘Man, I’d really like to go Truck (Series) racing and then I did that.’  And then after Truck racing it was like, ‘I’d really like to go Xfinity racing.’ Well then I’ve made it all the way to the top level of my sport and this is that final step, to be at the top team at the top level of the sport and I couldn’t be more excited.”

QUESTION: Tony, what are your thoughts about re-setting the No. 10 with a new driver?

TONY STEWART: “We don’t know until we get on the racetrack. The thing to always remember is it’s always about chemistry. All four teams have the same cars, it’s just a matter of chemistry and how they communicate with each other. The thing for me is I remember when Aric was leading the race at Milwaukee and had qualified on the pole in Joe Gibbs’ car and led every lap.

“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.

“Like I said, 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.”

QUESTION: Mr. Pauley, are you looking at B-to-B opportunities, and how significant will they be?

JOHN PAULEY: “It does play a role in our decision because of the relationship that they have with a Jimmy John’s or an Outback and so forth. But for us, that was just part of the decision-making process. I think being competitive was at the top of the list and as Tony alluded to, we have a lot of confidence in Aric. He’s won and he’s shown that he can win and we just want to make sure that he has the right equipment and support and we feel like he’s gonna get that here. Again, as a sponsor we couldn’t be more proud or pleased that he’s here.”

QUESTION: Aric, this announcement comes a couple months after Smithfield moved. Were other drivers considered? Did SHR have that option?

ARIC ALMIROLA: “They have the option to do whatever they want. They’re a successful race team and they hold all the cards. For Smithfield wanting to make the change and come over here to compete at a higher level, I think, was a decision they’ve made on their own, like John has talked about. Me and Tony, like we’ve said, we’ve been friends for a long time and I’ve always begged him for an opportunity for the last however many years to come over here and have a chance to drive for him, and it just so happened that all the cards came together this year.

“So I don’t think it was anything independent or collective, I think it was just everything happened in the right timing and I firmly believe that in life a lot of things either happen or don’t happen for a reason, and fortunately the Good Lord was looking out for me and this opportunity just all came together.”

QUESTION: Tony, how long is this deal? Is Smithfield primary for the whole season? And what did you see in Aric the last few years that made this opportunity possible?

TONY STEWART: “I’ll go with the last part first. Like I mentioned, I still remember a long time ago at Milwaukee. I’ve never forgotten that. It didn’t matter the last couple of years. As his friend, even if it wasn’t with us I knew if he ever had the right opportunity to get with the right group and have the right chemistry that the results would show that.

“As far as the terms of the deal, we never disclose that. There are too many rats out there with the other teams that try to go after your sponsors when they know you’re in a contract year, so those are terms we like to keep in-house and not really disclose. Smithfield is for the full season.”

QUESTION: Tony, was there any consideration to changing the car number from 10?

TONY STEWART:  “There was. We discussed one other number, but just like Hendrick Motorsports and Roush we were really encouraged to keep this number because it’s part of Stewart-Haas Racing’s history now and we wanted to keep that continuity with what we’ve had in the past.”

QUESTION: Aric, how much pressure are you feeling now that you are actually here?

 ARIC ALMIROLA: “No, I want the pressure. I think there are two types of athletes in the world. There are the athletes that are just excited to be a part of the show and there are the athletes that want to make the show, and I feel like I’m in the latter category. I want the pressure. I want the ball in my hands when it comes down to the game-winning shot. I want to drive the fastest race cars and I don’t want to have an excuse that my equipment is not where it needs to be. 

“This is that opportunity, so, yeah, absolutely, the pressure is on and I’m excited to accept that pressure because that means that I have the best team in the garage area, that means I have the fastest race cars and it’s about chemistry and it’s about me going out and doing my job. If that’s all I have to worry about, then that’s exactly what I’ve set out to do.”

QUESTION: Aric, what would be a satisfying goal for you to reach in 2018?

ARIC ALMIROLA: “I want to win races. Look in that shop right there and look at all those banners hanging up. They have obviously proven that they can win races. They can qualify on poles. They can win championships and I need to be in that mix. I need to be able to help elevate my teammates. I need to contribute to the team and I want to go out and win races, and I think that’s the best way I know how to contribute.

 I’ve had success at every other level that I’ve ever been in. I’ve won Xfinity races. I’ve won Truck races. I won Daytona in a Cup car, so I think, for me, I want to go win. I think anything short of winning and making the Playoffs would be a disappointment, but, at the same time, I think the competition is tough. Look at this organization right here and they’ve gotten on a roll. It was a big undertaking for them to switch manufacturers (from Chevrolet to Ford). But when you just look at how fast their cars have gotten in the last 10 weeks, that’s really encouraging for me and I think the timing couldn’t be more perfect to come in here after they have a year under their belt with working with everybody at Ford and Ford Performance on getting their cars where they need to be.

“Kurt Busch qualified on the pole (at TMS) and set a new track record last weekend (200.915 mph). Kevin Harvick won the race, so they’re poised to come out of the box strong and I think the timing is absolutely perfect. I’m excited to be in the car. I know I keep saying I’m excited but it’s because it’s true. I am beyond excited and I think that we can go out and contend for wins and make the Playoffs.”

QUESTION: Tony, Aric hates talking about Milwaukee, but why did that race stand out for you?

TONY STEWART: “I care about it because we’re friends. Even if he wasn’t with me, I knew that was a significant race for him. Like I said, I think a lot of people forgot about that race and how dominant Aric was. He doesn’t have to talk about it. I’ll talk about it for him as long as anybody wants to, but what stood out about it was he did not have a lot of time in an Xfinity car at that time either. He qualified on the pole and, I mean, anybody that remembers watching that race he didn’t have small leads, he had huge leads up to the point where he got out of the car. Granted, he was in a Gibbs car and obviously Gibbs’ Xfinity program was good back then as well. But, still, for the small amount of time that he had been in that car he was dominating that race.

“Milwaukee is not a high-grip track. I mean, it’s a very low-grip, slick racetrack and to have the car control that he had and just the poise that he had going through lapped traffic. I remember watching that race myself and just everything about it made me smile because he was my teammate, so I had a special focus on him because of that, and so every time he made a really good move I’m like, ‘Attaboy.’ He did it right.

“I watched a lot of details in that race that a lot of other people didn’t focus on and that’s why it’s such a big deal to me because I know what kind of talent he has. I know what he can do if he gets in a car that is set up the way that he likes it. 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.”

(Editor’s note: Almirola moved up to what was then known as the NASCAR Busch Series on a regular basis in 2007, driving the No. 18 and No. 20 Chevrolets in 10 races each for JGR. Almirola qualified on-pole for the second consecutive year at The Milwaukee Mile in place of Cup regular Denny Hamlin. When Hamlin’s helicopter was unable to land before the green flag, Almirola started the race and led the first 43 laps. During a caution on Lap 59, Hamlin _because of sponsor commitments _ took over for Almirola while he was running third. Hamlin won the race, but Almirola was credited with his first Busch Series win because he was the driver who started. However, Almirola did not participate in the Victory Lane celebrations. He subsequently asked for, and was granted, his release from JGR one month later).

QUESTION: Aric, how much more does this opportunity mean after the serious injury you suffered earlier this year at Kansas Speedway?

ARIC ALMIROLA: “I think it just adds to it, really. Like I said, and I mentioned a lot about it when I came back, and I think Tony of all people can attest to this, but when you get used to doing it 38 weeks a year it becomes so routine and it just becomes part of your everyday life. It becomes your job. For me, I actually lost sight of the fact that I love what I do because it was just the daily grind. I do my appearances during the week. I get on an airplane on Thursday. I go to the racetrack. I drive a race car. I go home Sunday night to my family. I wake up Monday and do it all over again.

“To have it taken away from you in an instant because of a crash, and then to have to sit on the couch and not go through your daily routine, it gives you a chance to reflect and see: ‘Do I like not going to the racetrack? Do I miss it?’ And the answer is yes. I missed it terribly and I wanted that routine and that daily grind back so much more than I did pre-accident, and I think it just re-lit a fire in me to want to compete and to want to drive race cars and to realize that I have one of the coolest jobs in the world and that I couldn’t be happier going to the racetrack on Thursday and getting ready to race.”

QUESTION: Aric, will you still drive some Xfinity races with Biagi-DenBeste coming over here?

TONY STEWART: “Well work on that. I might want to drive it at some point even. You guys act like you don’t need something shocking today to write! There are actually some road-course races that I might be interested in running. We’ve actually discussed it in-house here. We don’t have anything near worth announcing by any means, but there are some really cool races, especially Charlotte (Motor Speedway) having a road-course race next year. I mean, there might be some opportunities that might be a little bit fun for me to come out and dust things off a little bit.”

ARIC ALMIROLA: “So the answer is yes.  There you go.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 9 2017
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