CONCORD, N.C. – One of the prime vacancies among NASCAR Cup Series rides for next season opened up before this season even started. Jan. 10 was the date Aric Almirola announced he would retire from full-time NASCAR competition at the end of the 2022 campaign.
In the four-plus months since, the chain of succession for Almirola’s soon-to-be open No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford is not much clearer. Still, the team’s drivers have some influence in how the seat might be filled.
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Almirola’s retirement was actually the organization’s second major driver announcement in a five-day span during the offseason. On Jan. 6, SHR tapped Ryan Preece as a reserve driver. Since then, he’s filled a number of roles, doing simulator work, driving in national series races for Ford’s affiliate teams and making spot starts in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour that launched his career. Preece is pulling triple duty this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Trucks.
The organization has some sway in where Preece’s career goes next, but so does SHR veteran Kevin Harvick, whose agency represents the 31-year-old driver.
“I think for me, I’ve kind of seen Ryan and seen how he operates, and he’s just a hard-nosed racer and can put everything together himself and do everything himself,” Harvick said before qualifying for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM). “And to me, that’s the kind of guy you want, right? You want somebody who knows it all, and he’s just a fun kid to be around and works hard and can race. He just needs the right opportunity.”
Which begs the connect-the-dots question about whether a natural transition to SHR’s No. 10 makes sense. Posed it, Harvick became more tight-lipped.
“I think any opportunity would be, you know, an opportunity worth talking about for sure,” he said.
The other SHR pilot with an active interest is Almirola, who detailed some of his post-retirement plans Saturday – a long list that included family activities, athletic pursuits and potentially an Ironman Triathlon attempt. His racing-related talks have involved Stewart-Haas president Brett Frood, co-owner Tony Stewart and competition director Greg Zipadelli, who have gauged his input about who his successor might be.
“I am involved and I think talking with Brett and Tony and Zippy and all the guys at SHR about what that looks like, and then even having conversations with Smithfield, and what it looks like for them and whether or not they’re going to continue or what their decision-making is going to look like going forward,” Almirola said, mentioning the long-running sponsor that’s been with him since 2012. “So I am involved in all those conversations, and I think there’s still a lot of question marks and not a lot of answers yet.”