KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — Acknowledging that it was perhaps the worst-kept secret in NASCAR, Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart officially introduced Aric Almirola as the driver of the organization’s No. 10 Ford for 2018 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series on Wednesday.
Almirola will replace Danica Patrick, who has driven for SHR full time since 2013. Smithfield Foods will provide sponsorship for the No. 10 team.
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“This is an unbelievable day for me to have this opportunity,” Almirola said. “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 (Stewart-Haas Racing has) 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.”
Stewart, who retired from competing in the series at the end of 2016, captured the championship in 2011. In ’14, driver Kevin Harvick won the title, and he is one of four drivers who will compete for the crown once again this year at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Almirola said the opportunity was particularly exciting since he and Stewart have a friendship that goes back a bit further than most might realize.
As a development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing early in his career, Almirola said Stewart “befriended me and took me under his wing.”
“Plus he hated to go testing, so he would send me with (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) to go testing,” Almirola said. “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.”
The 33-year-old Almirola will depart Richard Petty Motorsports, where he has one career win in 212 starts driving the iconic No. 43 entry. That win, the Coke Zero 400, came at Daytona International Speedway in July of 2014.
“I’m real excited to have him on board,” Stewart said. “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.”
Prior to joining RPM, Almirola ran 30 races in the series between 2007-10, primarily with Dale Earnhardt Inc. He has three career NASCAR XFINITY Series wins and a pair of victories in the Camping World Truck Series.
Almirola missed seven races this season due to a back injury suffered in May at Kansas Speedway. He enters this weekend’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR) 29th in the points standings.
In addition to his lone win, Almirola has 11 career top-five finishes, 31 top 10s and one pole in the Monster Energy Cup Series.
SHR officials announced in early September that Smithfield would join the company’s list of sponsors for ’18. At approximately the same time, RPM officials announced Smithfield and Almirola would not return next season.
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace has been signed to drive the No. 43 for RPM in place of Almirola. Wallace competed in four races for the team in ’17 while Almirola was recovering from his injury.
“We’ve been in this sport for six years. I’d be lying to you if I said we were happy with the results we’ve achieved,” said John Pauley, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Smithfield Foods. “Especially this time of year; I’m really geeked to see what happens at Homestead but I’m disappointed we’re not there.
“For us, after meeting Tony … it was clear they’ve got all the back-end support that they need I think to be more competitive. So we went down this path of the mindset of ‘Let’s win.’ We’ve been in it enough to get our brand out there, we’ve built some equity; … we want to win.
“We know (Aric) so well, we’re comfortable with him off the track, obviously. On the track, he’s proven he can compete.”
Pauley said he spoke with Stewart prior to signing Almirola and asked the three-time champion “Tony, is Aric capable?”
“He said, ‘Absolutely,’ and that was enough for me.”
Patrick has yet to announce her competition plans for ’18. During her tenure at SHR, the 35-year-old has earned seven top-10 finishes in 178 starts. A former IndyCar winner, Patrick became the first female driver to capture the pole for the Daytona 500 when she did so in 2013.
In addition to Patrick, SHR also currently fields the No. 4 of Kevin Harvick, the No. 14 of Clint Bowyer and the No. 41 of Kurt Busch.