NASCAR: Dark horse replacement for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2023?

Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

Stewart-Haas Racing must fill at least one seat for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, and they might have to look outside of the organization for a driver.

The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season will see at least one seat driver change, with Aric Almirola set to step away from his #10 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing after five years.

The 38-year-old Tampa, Florida native announced before the season started that he plans to retire from full-time competition at the end of the season, ending a 15-year career at NASCAR’s highest level.

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Stewart-Haas Racing teammate and 2014 Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick recently noted that he was ready to retire last year, but he has since shifted gears. At 46 years old, Harvick is constantly subjected to retirement talks, but the 2007 Daytona 500 champion seems set to ride his contract out. It expires in 2023.

In-house options to replace Almirola are limited, with Stewart-Haas Racing only fielding one car outside of the Cup Series: the #98 Ford in the Xfinity Series for Riley Herbst. Instead of fielding a second car in the Xfinity Series or running in the Truck Series, they have elected to form alliances with smaller teams such as Rick Ware Racing and SS-Green Light Racing.

Reserve driver Ryan Preece could be an option as well, but he is not currently a full-time driver. He competes in select races for Stewart-Haas Racing-affiliated teams across all three national series.

With limited options to replace the #10 Ford for 2023, a case could be made for Stewart-Haas Racing to look at an emerging driver outside the organization.

If Stewart-Haas Racing do elect to look elsewhere for a driver in 2023, current JR Motorsports driver Noah Gragson fits the bill for what they’d be looking for.

The 23-year-old Las Vegas, Nevada native is currently competing on a one-year deal with JR Motorsports. Additionally, he has flirted with the Cup Series already, driving for both Beard Motorsports and Kaulig Racing this season.

Gragson’s longtime sponsor, Bass Pro Shops, has connections with Stewart-Haas Racing and team co-owner Tony Stewart as well, having served as Stewart’s sponsor during his Cup Series career.

Gragson has paid homage to Stewart by climbing the fence during his victory celebrations, and Stewart might have already shown his bias toward him. When Gragson wrecked out of the 2022 Daytona 500, Stewart could be heard saying a quiet “dang it” on the Fox broadcast.

While departing from Chevrolet would have to happen in order for Gragson to make this work, it’s not uncommon for a driver to switch manufacturers to land a Cup Series ride.

In fact, he already left Toyota to join JR Motorsports ahead of the 2019 Xfinity Series season after competing for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series, and with a lack of seats open at the Hendrick Motorsports Cup Series team, another switch could be in the works.

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Most recently, rookie Harrison Burton left Toyota for Ford to join Wood Brothers Racing for the 2022 Cup Series season, and if mutual interest is indeed there, Gragson could be the next driver to join a Blue Oval-aligned team.