News Analysis: Aric Almirola to drive No. 10 car at Stewart-Haas Racing

What happened: Stewart-Haas Racing announced Aric Almirola will replace Danica Patrick in the No. 10 car next season with backing from longtime Almirola sponsor Smithfield.

What it means: Almirola will be in the best equipment of his Cup Series career after Smithfield and Richard Petty Motorsports resolved their legal issues. There had been a holdup in announcing this move after Smithfield’s CEO and Petty himself had a war of words during what seemed like a bitter breakup, and that apparently led to behind-the-scenes wrangling over whether Smithfield and Almirola could go to a different team as a package. That’s all behind them now, and Almirola will join Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and whoever drives the 41 car (probably Kurt Busch) at SHR next season.

News value (scale of 1-10): Four. The primary newsworthiness in this situation appears to be making it “official,” since everyone knew for awhile now that Almirola was heading to SHR. Still, it is more newsy than other non-surprises because it’s a major team with a high-profile team owner.

Three questions: Despite spending his career in lesser equipment than Patrick, Almirola is statistically an upgrade in every category — but can he win races in the 10? Will Almirola be a perennial playoff driver now that he’s with an elite team? What exactly will Smithfield’s involvement with RPM be?

News Analysis: Smithfield leaves Richard Petty Motorsports for Stewart-Haas Racing

What happened: In a Tuesday morning Facebook post, Smithfield said it will leave Richard Petty Motorsports and join Stewart-Haas Racing next season. On Sunday, Lee Spencer of Motorsport.com reported Smithfield backed out of a handshake deal to return to RPM’s No. 43 car next season after the team proposed it hire Bubba Wallace to replace Aric Almirola. Richard Petty later confirmed the sponsor broke its handshake agreement. A desire for increased competitiveness resulted in Smithfield moving to SHR, which said in a statement the move will come with a “driver who will be added to SHR’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series lineup.” EDIT: In a statement later Tuesday afternoon, RPM said Almirola will not return to the team.

What it means: While it’s nice SHR found a high-paying sponsor for one of its cars to go along with a new driver, the immediate focus will be on RPM’s future. This is a devastating loss for the No. 43, as the team thought Smithfield was set to return next season. It’s mid-September and RPM doesn’t have a sponsor for most of its 2018 races — and likely hasn’t been looking for one if it believed Smithfield would be back. This could put RPM in serious jeopardy as an organization, since it now must scramble to find funding in order to compete next season. As for SHR, it’s unclear which driver could end up with the team — but we now know the lineup will indeed change for next season. Danica Patrick has said her return to the No. 10 car is based on sponsorship, while SHR previously said it intends to retain free agent Kurt Busch in 2018.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven. Spencer’s reporting took the surprise out of this news, but it’s still very significant in terms of RPM’s future. If Smithfield’s move results in the No. 43 car not being on the track in some form next season, it’s a pretty major story for NASCAR. In addition, the SHR piece of this will play into Silly Season news with an unspecified driver movement.

Three questions: Will Almirola be able to go with Smithfield to SHR, or does this mean a free agent like Matt Kenseth will get that seat? Can RPM find enough sponsorship to run a full schedule in 2018? Will there be Subway-like backlash toward Smithfield, or will fans view this as a business decision and be OK with it?

12 Questions with Aric Almirola

The series of 12 Questions continues this week with Aric Almirola of Richard Petty Motorsports. Despite missing eight races with a broken back, Almirola can still make the playoffs Saturday night at Richmond Raceway with a win and a NASCAR waiver. 

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

There has to be a balance of both. Race car drivers are always fine-tuning their craft and you constantly learn. Even Jimmie Johnson, after winning seven championships and all the experience and laps that he has, he still learns every weekend — or at least I think he does, just from talking to him and conversating with him.

So as a race car driver, you’re constantly learning and working at trying to be better. But there has to be some natural ability and some natural talent to be able to make the work pay off.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

(Laughs) I don’t know. I think with our sport, you have to compete and run up front and be sort of in the spotlight to gain the fans. So we’ve gotta do a better job of that; I’ve got to do a better job of that. And if you run up front, the fans will come.

People love to cheer for winners and people love to boo for winners, right? You saw that with Dale Earnhardt, you saw that with Darrell Waltrip, you see it with Kyle Busch. Obviously, you’ve seen it with Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. Back in the day, people used to hate Jeff Gordon if they were a Dale Earnhardt fan, and then Dale showed some love to Jeff and when Dale passed away, it seemed like the Rainbow Warriors came out in flying colors. So I think success breeds stardom, and stardom breeds fanbases. So I’ve got to do my part on the racetrack to gain more fans.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

Away from the racetrack, I think the hardest part is just balancing life and a family and still trying to work, still trying to work out and stay in shape, make the sponsors happy, go and do sponsor appearances or PR requests, go and do Race Hub or NASCAR America. All of those things, they take time out of your weekday life. And don’t forget Thursday through Sunday, we’re 1000 percent dedicated to racing.

So our families sometimes get put on the back burner, and I think that’s the most challenging part for most race car drivers — especially ones like myself who have a wife and kids — just trying to find that balance during the week. If you said yes to everything, I could find ways to work seven days a week every hour I was awake. But trying to figure out when to say no is the hardest part.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Absolutely. My wife (Janice) especially, if she was there, she would poke and prod me to loosen up some and do those kinds of things. So yeah, I think I’m a very personable guy. I enjoy people and I enjoy people coming up and saying hi, especially if they’re respectful — I think that’s important.

So Janice doesn’t mind getting date night interrupted?

No, not at all. She thinks it’s good and she thinks it’s cool that people recognize me. Like I said, as long as they’re respectful. There’s the occasional (person) that’s not very respectful, but most people are extremely respectful. When people come up and just want to meet you or get a picture and an autograph, it’s kind of cool.

I never thought that day would come. When I was an 8-year-old kid or a 10-year-old kid racing go-karts, never did I ever in my wildest dreams think that someone would want my autograph — even though when I was about 10, I would sit there and practice my name in cursive in case I had to sign an autograph one day. And now, I have to do it.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I think the amount of hard work that all these crew guys put in. They work 60 hours a week during the week at the shop, and then they come to the track and put in three or four hard, grinding days at the track. They devote more of their life to this than even the drivers and team owners do. The crew guys, all of the front of the workload, really falls on their shoulders. They ensure that the cars are prepared and built and the haulers are going to and from the races. So much of this sport rests on their shoulders, and they put in a tremendous amount of work and that’s sometimes overlooked.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Jimmie Johnson, about going on a bike ride this morning.

How was your ride?

It was good. I rode 42, 43 miles, so it was a nice morning ride here in Darlington. The weather was nice for it. It was a little humid, a little overcast, but it was nice to get up and get the blood flowing.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yeah, absolutely. We go out and we put out a show for the people that come to watch, the people who tune in on TV to watch, the people who tune into the radio to listen to it. That’s what we’re doing: We’re putting on a show.

If there wasn’t anybody that watched, and if there weren’t any fans in the stands, every race car driver in the garage area would probably still race — but we wouldn’t have a job doing it. We wouldn’t make the money we make, we wouldn’t have the sponsors we have, we wouldn’t have the involvement.

Having the fans, that changes the whole atmosphere. We all grew up racing Saturday night short tracks, and when you go there and have 1,000, 2,500, or 5,000 fans, you don’t really pay much attention to it. But then when you start racing in NASCAR and you walk out in that driver introductions stage for the first time and you see 100,000 fans in the stands, it changes things. It brings a whole new level of excitement and energy to our sport.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I’m not big on doing it. I tend to refrain from doing that most of the time. But when it’s deserved, it’ll certainly come out.

What happens when it gets done to you?

Usually I’m mad, like, “What the heck is that guy’s problem?” Sometimes, you know when maybe you’re gonna get it and you maybe did it on purpose. Like you know it’s coming and you don’t really care. And then other times you’re kind of caught by surprise.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Sure. I think the one guy that comes to mind for me is Tony Stewart. When he raced, and I thought we raced really well together, and he raced everybody like that. Like he would race you hard when he knew he wanted that spot or had a car good enough to have that spot, but then on other days when he was struggling with his car or whatever, he would not hold you up, he wouldn’t fight you. And then the next pit stop, if he made an adjustment and his car was better and he came from a straightaway behind and caught you, you would pay him that same favor back; you would let him go and wouldn’t hold him up. He learned from the Mark Martins and the Dale Earnhardts and those guys how to race that way, and that’s the one guy where I always felt like if he cut me a break, I was sure to return the favor if it came back my way.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I’ve had dinner with Garth Brooks. He’s pretty famous.

That’s awesome. How was that?

That was pretty cool. We went and hung out with him and Trisha (Yearwood) backstage at what was supposed to be one of his final ever concerts in Kansas City at the Sprint Center. We hung out with him backstage before he went on, and had pizza and drank some beer. That was really cool.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

(Thinks for awhile) I’m not trying to stall because I don’t have anything I want to improve on, I’m stalling trying to figure what’s on the top of the list. I have a lot of things I want to improve on.

I think I’d like to improve on just being a better husband and a better dad when I’m available. It’s so easy in this sport about getting caught up in racing and racing kind of being number one and everything else taking a backseat. Even in those moments when I am home and being a husband and a dad, I still find myself lost in my own thoughts about racing and everything revolving around racing. So I think that’s probably the one thing that would most benefit me to improve on, is to just continue to be a better husband and a better dad when I am home.

12. The last interview I did was with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.  His question was: What did you do on the off weekend? And if it was fun, why didn’t you invite him?

(Laughs) Well he did something really cool, and he didn’t invite me, so I’m pissed, actually. He went out on a huge yacht and toured around down at the Bahamas. So I’m jealous, and shame on him for asking me why I didn’t invite him to our little resort that we went to.

My wife and the kids and I — Janice, Alex, and Abby — we all piled in the car and went down to the beach down in Georgia and made a long weekend out of it. The kids started school, so taking them out of school for a whole week is not really ideal, especially when they had just started. So we took them out of school for just Friday and Monday and made a long weekend out of it. We left Thursday afternoon when they got out of school and went to the beach. So we had a great time. The weather was a little crappy a couple of the days, but we still made the best of it and had a lot of fun.

I don’t know who the next driver interview is, but do you have a question I can ask another race car driver in general?

Yeah. Ask them why they agreed to do this interview. (Grins)

This interview was brought to you by Dover International Speedway. The cutoff race for the first playoff round takes place at Dover on Oct. 1. Here’s a link to buy tickets (and make sure to come say hi at the tweetup).

Aric Almirola addresses his crash, injury and prognosis

Aric Almirola spoke to the media Friday morning at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Here are some highlights of what he said:

— Due to his broken T5 vertebra, Almirola said he is likely out for eight to 12 weeks. That would put a possible return in mid-July to early August. Almirola said his doctors told him he could be paralyzed from his belly button downward if he rushed back too soon and injured himself further. “I’ve got a lot of baseball to play with my son and I want to dance with my daughter at her wedding,” Almirola said. “I’m not going to risk it.”

— Almirola remains in constant pain and is very uncomfortable. “Nothing alleviates the pain,” he said, and sleeping is very difficult. The pain in his back started immediately when he made contact with Joey Logano’s car — “it felt like somebody stuck a knife in my back” — and when the car came back down and landed from the rear wheels getting airborne, “it felt like somebody took that knife and twisted it in my back.” Still, Almirola said he “realized how fortunate I was” not to be injured worse.

— There were two seconds between the Logano/Danica Patrick crash and Almirola’s impact. Almirola acknowledged that was a “long way” and said “I should have missed the wreck.” But Almirola was committed to the top lane, and when he tried to turn and avoid the crash, his car either hit oil or water. “My car wouldn’t slow down, it wouldn’t steer,” he said. “It felt like I was on railroad tracks and I was headed straight for the wreck. … I feel like an idiot even being involved in the wreck. But there was honestly nothing I could do. It was like it was on ice.”

— Almirola blasted the photographers who snapped pictures of him while he was being taken out of the car. “I’m pretty pissed off about it, to be honest with you,” he said. “I think that is extremely unprofessional. They had no idea was what wrong with me. They didn’t know if I was paralyzed or anything. They were literally three feet away with their shutters running wide open the entire time. … I was obviously in a very vulnerable situation, and I’m disappointed, to say the least. They didn’t know if my legs were going to be attached, they didn’t know any of that.”

— Due to the pain, Almirola said he initially had an “intense burning sensation” in his back — and that’s why he dropped the window net right away. “I thought I was on fire,” he said. “I got my window net down based on pure adrenaline. When I extended my hands out in front of me (to take the wheel off), I knew I kind of had a problem and it took my breath away.”

— In addition, Richard Petty Motorsports executive Brian Moffitt said the team’s plans for a substitute driver beyond the All-Star Race (where Regan Smith will drive) are yet to be determined. “(We) came up with a list of people and we’re still working through that with our partners,” he said. “Right now, we’re thrilled Regan is going to be in the car for this weekend.”

 

News Analysis: Regan Smith to replace Aric Almirola

What happened: “Super Sub” Regan Smith has been summoned for duty once again, this time to replace Aric Almirola in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports car for the Monster Energy Open race prior to Saturday night’s All-Star event. Smith, 33, has subbed for Hendrick Motorsports (No. 88 car), Stewart-Haas Racing (No. 14 car, No. 41 car) and Chip Ganassi Racing (No. 42 car) since 2012. He has been racing in the Camping World Truck Series this year, where he is 10th in points.

What it means: At least we know who will be in the No. 43 car for now, although it remains unclear how long Almirola will be out with his fractured vertebra from the Kansas crash. Almirola will be at Charlotte Motor Speedway for a news conference Friday to “provide an update on his injury and his recovery plan,” RPM said.

News value (scale of 1-10): Only a 3, because this is just one piece of the news. There’s still much to find out about Almirola’s prognosis, how he’s feeling now and how many additional races he could miss.

Questions: Is Smith a lock to replace Almirola until the regular driver is ready to return? How much input did sponsor Smithfield have for who RPM was going to put in the seat? Can Almirola get back by Daytona, where he’s won before, and go for a longshot playoff berth?

The Top Five: Breaking down the Kansas race

Five thoughts from Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway…

1. Please be OK

The Joey Logano/Danica Patrick/Aric Almirola crash was the scariest incident in a non-plate Cup Series race in a long, long time. It’s not worth ranking crashes against one another, but it was in a category of frightening wrecks that seem part of a bygone era — when those incidents came with a high risk of serious injury or worse.

Of course, this stretch since 2001 is an illusion. NASCAR is safer now, but it’s not safe. And perhaps everyone has been lulled into a false sense of security.

Can you blame people? When drivers emerge from vicious crashes time and time again — even situations like Michael McDowell at Texas, for example — we just come to expect it. So as bad as Almirola’s hit was — rear tires off the ground and all — it was actually surprising when he appeared to be injured and had to be removed on a backboard.

Seeing the roof cut off of a car to get the driver out was an unfamiliar sight for fans who started following NASCAR in the last decade or so. I don’t recall seeing this happen in the Cup Series since I’ve been covering it (starting in 2004).

Fortunately, Almirola was conscious and able to move enough to drop the window net. As of writing this, there’s no official update on his injuries yet. Update: The team did not disclose Almirola’s injuries, but said he is in stable condition and is being held for observation overnight at a local hospital. Hoping the best for Almirola and his family should be the biggest concern for now.

But we should also use this as a reminder that crashes won’t always have a favorable outcome.

“It’s a dangerous sport — always has been, always will be,” Brad Keselowski said. “Sometimes we forget that and maybe take for granted that you see real hard hits and people walk away, and then you see one where someone doesn’t, and it puts things back into perspective just how dangerous it can be.”

2. Truex capitalizes

Although Ryan Blaney had two late chances to beat Martin Truex Jr. on a restart and score his first victory, the race may actually have been decided on the third-to-last caution.

On that restart, Blaney was on the inside of the front row with Truex lined up behind him. Truex went down to the apron and Blaney tried to block — but Truex then faked him out, went up the track to the preferred higher lane and drove away. Truex never trailed after that.

It was the move of a driver who has lost more races than he’s won, especially over the last few years, and is practically desperate not to let any more victories slip away. And in some ways, drivers have to learn what loses races like these before they understand what actions result in a win.

“You don’t forget those days that ones got away or you screwed up and gave one away or anything like that,” Truex said. “You never forget those things. They always stick with you.”

Granted, many of the missed opportunities haven’t been his fault, but they seem to bring out an extra level of determination to seize the chances that continue to come his way.

Blaney will eventually figure out how to close races. The more he’s in the position to have a shot at the win — like at Kansas — the better he’ll become.

3. Loose ends

Perhaps more than any driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is conscious of when his wheel might be loose.

Can you blame him? If his team leaves the wheel loose enough to come off (like it nearly did at Talladega last week), Earnhardt could hit the wall at full speed and have his career come to a premature end with another concussion — perhaps even having lifelong implications.

So when there’s a chance he might have a wheel loose, he’s going to err on the side of caution. It’s just not worth it to risk it otherwise.

You would think, then, that the No. 88 team would be particularly diligent about getting the wheels secured. If nothing else, it’s a confidence thing for Earnhardt to know he can go out and drive aggressively.

But it was another verse of the same old song at Kansas, where Earnhardt had a loose wheel again. However, he also said he pitted in one instance when it wasn’t necessary — because he mistakenly believed  another one was loose.

“I came in for a vibration that wasn’t a loose wheel and we lost a lap and we got it back and ended up 20th,” he said. “I made a few mistakes tonight on the vibrations and what I thought they were and it cost us a lot of track position. It cost about 10 spots at least.

“I’m just a little confused as to why we can’t seem to shake this … I can’t say it’s really bad luck because tonight really was our own doing, but we can’t get in harmony and know whatever it is.”

This reminded me of the time in 2010 at Dover, when Earnhardt pitted by mistake because he thought his tire was flat — but it was actually just his car acting up. But there’s one big difference: He has speed now, whereas the cars back then pretty much sucked.

So although Earnhardt fans are certainly frustrated and are calling for Greg Ives’ job or pit crew changes, I don’t think the 88 team is that far off. The best chance for a victory is to stick together, put together a few mistake-free weeks and then get thoughts of loose wheels out of Earnhardt’s head.

4. False hope?

Just when it looked like Joe Gibbs Racing was going to have a shot to get its first win of the season, it got bested by affiliate Furniture Row Racing again.

All four of JGR’s cars were in the top 10 for much of the race, and Kyle Busch led 59 laps. But Busch ultimately ended up fifth — the highest-running JGR car — and it looked like the team still has much work to do in order to meet its standards from the last two years.

“We just don’t have that speed to be first,” Busch told FS1 after the race. “We don’t have that dominant speed to be up there all day.”

Especially, Busch added, to compete with the 78 car. Which is weird, since they’re basically both on the same team.

My favorite theory in explaining this is echoing something Jimmie Johnson noted last year about affiliate teams. The supplier (like JGR) builds chassis and pours all its knowledge and manpower into making them the best it can; but then affiliates like Furniture Row take the car and has its own very smart people put another twist on it.

It’s sort of like taking an A- English paper written by someone else, making a few tweaks and getting an A+ on it.

Still, that has to bug the crap out of JGR — although Furniture Row is doing exactly what it should be.

5. Points picture

The regular season is approaching its halfway point (Kansas was Race No. 11 of 26), so the standings are starting to be a legitimate concern for some drivers.

Stage points have created some big gaps between the drivers who regularly run up front and those who have struggled, and the latter include some big names.

Earnhardt is 25th in the standings, 77 points out of a playoff spot. Matt Kenseth is 18th. Daniel Suarez, who is driving for a team that made the final four last year, is 19th. And 2016 playoff driver Austin Dillon is 22nd.

So while there’s still a long way to go, there’s little margin for error remaining for drivers who are off to slow starts.