Full-time sub? Richard Petty Motorsports still mulling options

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CONCORD, N.C. — Richard Petty Motorsports indicated Friday morning that it does not have definitive long-term plans for replacing driver Aric Almirola as he recovers from a broken back. For now, the team’s fill-in driver doesn’t either.

The team named veteran Regan Smith as interim driver for this weekend’s events for the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race. But Almirola said Friday he’s expected to miss 8-12 weeks for a full recovery from the injuries he suffered in a crash last weekend at Kansas Speedway, creating a longer-term vacancy in the historic No. 43 Ford.

RPM executive Brian Moffitt said his initial concerns were with Almirola and his family, but that he eventually met with their driver, team owner Richard Petty and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer to produce a list of potential fill-in candidates. The group settled on Smith, but only for the non-points All-Star exhibition.

“We’re still working through that with our partners,” Moffitt said, “so as soon as we know for the future, we’ll be letting you guys know that. But right now, we’re thrilled that Regan’s in the car for this weekend.”

Smith was at the track Friday, meeting with reporters outside the Richard Petty Motorsports hauler in a crisp, white firesuit with the logo of team sponsor Smithfield Foods. Like Moffitt, Smith was mum about further opportunities with the No. 43 operation.

“I’m focused on this weekend right now and we’re going to do the best we can for their partners and for their team this weekend and see how things progress going forward,” Smith said, “but I’m gonna focus on this weekend and do a good job for them this weekend.”

Smith, who competes full-time in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, is a veteran of 211 starts in NASCAR’s premier division. The 33-year-old driver’s lone big-league victory came in the 2011 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Smith last competed full-time in the series in 2016, but has gained a reputation in recent years as a go-to substitute. His duties have included short stints in place of Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., oftentimes being called on to stand in with short notice.

This go-around, Smith had a much longer lead time in getting acclimated with the No. 43 bunch, but driving an unfamiliar car has become a familiar situation for him.

“I’ve learned I’ve got a hell of a polo shirt collection at this point,” Smith said with a smile about his growing supply of team apparel. “I don’t know if there are any crew members in the garage that have been with more teams than I have. I guess the first time you do it, and I mentioned earlier, that they’re all different and all unique in their own way.”