In a move that many that follow the sport closely saw coming, Danica Patrick will not return to driving the No. 10 car for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018. The team already announced they were not picking up the option for 2004 cup series champion Kurt Busch, who won the Daytona 500 and is locked in the playoffs, so Danica not returning was almost inevitable.
The surprise to this announcement is that it came on the tails of the team inking major sponsor in the sport, Smithfield Foods. The prominent brand is a major investor in the sport on both the team and television side and has a lot of money to spend on pushing their brand. After reportedly agreeing to re-up with Richard Petty Motorsports sponsoring the No. 43 team, the deal fell through and Smithfield is ending their partnership with RPM in favor of the move to SHR.
Another announcement came forward today about the status of driver of the 43 in Aric Almirola not returning to Petty Motorsports next season leading to many connecting the dots. A report surfaced last week that Smithfield was weary that RPM was looking to move on from Almirola in favor of young driver Bubba Wallace which led to them shopping their services and sponsorship elsewhere directly to Stewart-Haas Racing.
Richard Petty was none too pleased in Smithfield “turning their back” on the team, so to speak in an announcement this afternoon, “We have had numerous discussions with Smithfield Foods regarding the extension of our relationship dating as far back as February. Over the past few months, Smithfield had continually told me they wanted to be with us, and I recently shook hands on a deal to extend our relationship. I come from a time when we did major deals with sponsors like STP on a handshake. I’m sad to see this is where we are now. This decision is very unexpected, and we are extremely disappointed in this late and abrupt change of direction.”
Petty confirmed that Almirola will not return to the team next season and ended the statement, “We have a lot of great partners who have expressed their continued support, and our fans will rally around the No. 43. We’ve been around since 1949, and we’ll be around a lot longer.”
As for Stewart-Haas, the No. 10 and Danica Patrick have struggled to secure sponsorship in recent memory which is why the addition of Smithfield Foods is so vital to the future of the multiple car operation. Kevin Harvick has his own sponsorship and has carried the team in recent years since the move over and securing a title. Clint Bowyer replaced the retiring Tony Stewart driving his No. 14 and took over the Smoke owned ride stepping in and riding for the same team sponsors. Kurt Busch wasn’t extended in part due to the lack of sponsorship for the No. 41 car going forward leading many to believe SHR will shrink down to a three-car operation.
If SHR downsizes to three teams then it will be Almirola that steps in to drive the 1o car with Smithfield Foods as the backing sponsor and no doubt as the reason for his move to the team with the strong influence from such a major brand. One way or another, it’s no coincidence that all of these announcements come at the same time. Almirola is essentially replacing Danica Patrick in 2018 and beyond at Stewart-Haas. Almirola has one career victory in the 2014 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona and has racked up 27 top-ten finishes over the last six seasons as a full-time driver.
With the addition of Smithfield Foods, Stewart-Haas Racing is perhaps also more likely to remain a four-car operation after Harvick, Bowyer and the almost guaranteed addition of Almirola. That leaves one veteran free agent who is locked in to the playoffs, run for championships in the past in a Ford and has the desire to keep racing for wins at the highest level of competition. Matt Kenseth is the guy for SHR. Kenseth, like Almirola with Smithfield, has formed long-lasting relationships with sponsors that have already moved with him from team-to-team such as Dewalt. Kenseth could step into a fourth car and immediately give SHR four teams that can compete for wins and playoff spots rather than just three.
What’s next for Danica Patrick?
With a departure from SHR and sponsorship for the only female driver in the series always an issue, despite her popularity, Patrick may have difficulty securing a full-time ride in the series for 2018. Danica can step away from the sport at any time and still be more than well off financially and with her own clothing line in “Warrior by Danica”, still have bundles of success. The popular driver has stated in recent years she has zero desire to return to open-wheel racing, and if she still wants to race and have a shot to compete with a legitimate team, her best option may be running full-time in the Xfinity Series.
Not only would the move to Xfinity inject more popularity and viewership to the series, but it would allow for the female to further showcase her abilities as a driver and run for a title. Drivers such as Elliott Sadler have transitioned from full-time in the Monster Energy Series to the Xfinity Series and have flourished in racing for points and a title. Sadler just won the regular season points title and while he isn’t quite at the level of series elites like Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Busch, he is a great driver in his own right that does wonders for the sport. The same can be said for Danica Patrick who could thrive in the series and win some races while putting more fans in the seats on Saturdays. The perfect spot could be running alongside Sadler for JR Motorsports replacing the departing William Byron on the team. Imagine going from Tony Stewart as a boss to Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Can’t beat that.
On a week where 16 drivers and teams are preparing to start their playoff run in Chicago on Sunday, major news emerged today from two NASCAR teams and drivers not in the playoffs in hopes that a move could spark something in 2018. Smithfield Foods and likely driver Aric Almirola are departing Richard Petty Motorsports in favor of Stewart-Haas and Danica Patrick won’t return to the organization leaving many to wonder what the future holds for NASCAR’s only female driver in their top series.
Follow Frank Pimentel on Twitter: @FrankBostonTank