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: Bubba Wallace to drive Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 car

What happened: Darrell Wallace Jr. will move to the Cup Series to drive Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 car next season, the team announced Wednesday. That will make Wallace the first full-time African-American driver in the Cup Series since Wendell Scott ran 37 races in the 1971 season.

What it means: Bubba gets a well-deserved shot at a Cup ride, and NASCAR gets an injection of excitement with a big personality getting to drive at the top level. NASCAR needs more characters after losing star power over the last few years with the departures of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — and Wallace’s edginess and enthusiasm will help with that. Also, you would assume this announcement means RPM feels like it will be able to find enough sponsorship to continue as an organization after anchor partner Smithfield decided to leave the team. The team’s news release announcing the decision said sponsorship for Wallace will be announced at a later date, so it’s unclear what that will entail.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven. There are several distinct elements at play here, including Wallace’s skin color (which shouldn’t be notable in 2017 but will grab headlines based on NASCAR’s lack of diversity), the legend of the 43 car and the hope of an potential new star getting a chance at the Cup level. The news is not a surprise, though, based on the frequent updates from SportsBusiness Journal’s Adam Stern about RPM trying to sign Wallace.

Three questions: Does RPM have sponsorship secure, or is it making this announcement in hopes of drumming up funding now that it has a driver signed? Will Wallace, who was 11th at Kentucky earlier this year, be able to have more performances where he finishes ahead of where Aric Almirola typically did in the 43? Will Domino’s be involved with the team in any way, or will the company stupidly ignore a great opportunity to be paired with a rising star?

What Smithfield should have said

In a Tuesday afternoon statement, Richard Petty Motorsports said longtime sponsor Smithfield Foods left the team hanging for 2018 by backing out of a handshake deal to stay.

The statement painted Smithfield in a bad light and sparked fan outrage, which obviously upset executives at the company. So within a few hours, Smithfield retaliated with a strongly worded response that was, quite frankly, unbecoming of a major, multinational corporation.

I totally get that Smithfield felt attacked and wanted to respond. The company has made a major investment in NASCAR and it felt like it was treated unfairly. Understandable.

But I don’t agree with how Smithfield reacted publicly to the situation. Going to war with one of NASCAR’s most beloved figures is a bad idea — even if executives felt it was justified — and it just makes Smithfield look amateurish.

I have ZERO experience in public relations except what I see from a media standpoint, so take this for what it’s worth. But here’s a statement Smithfield should have released instead of the one it did. (NOTE: THESE ARE MY PROPOSED WORDS, NOT THOSE OF SMITHFIELD.)

It has been an honor and privilege to be associated with Richard Petty, the King of NASCAR, who is a true American legend. As we said earlier today, Smithfield Foods made an extremely difficult decision to go in a different direction with its sponsorship for next season, and we recognize not everyone will agree with our choice.

However, we would like to clarify that Smithfield never had a handshake deal to return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2018. We regret this obvious misunderstanding, but Richard Petty was mistaken when he said we backed out on our word. While it is true we wanted a reason to remain at RPM and held out hope for any sign of the team’s performance turning around, we ultimately did not see that at this time.

We share the goal of every NASCAR sponsor: To reach victory lane in the most prestigious series in American motorsports and contend for the championship. We truly wished that would happen at RPM, but we did not see a path to winning. That is why we decided to join Stewart-Haas Racing next season.

That said, we again want to thank Richard Petty and RPM for being such a great partner over the years. We are rooting for the team to succeed well into the future and hope another sponsor decides to support this iconic car and team owner in the great sport of NASCAR.

In the meantime, we will continue to invest in NASCAR. We love all race fans and are so appreciative of the support they have shown us while we have poured tens of millions of dollars into this great sport. We hope to see you all at the track soon and are looking forward to the future at Stewart-Haas Racing.

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?