Aric Almirola still isn’t certain that he will be back with Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season, and a potential replacement has emerged.
Before the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season began, Aric Almirola announced that it would be his last and that he would be retiring upon its conclusion, creating a need for Stewart-Haas Racing to select a new driver for the No. 10 Ford that Almirola had driven since replacing Danica Patrick in 2018.
But during the 2022 season, Almirola changed his mind and opted to return to the team for a sixth season in 2023. Ryan Preece, who had been rumored to replace him after signing with the team as their official reserve driver, ended up being called upon to replace the struggling Cole Custer instead, with Custer sent back down to the Xfinity Series.
Now with the 2023 regular season nearing its end, the 39-year-old Fort Walton Beach, Florida native has said that he has about 30 to 60 days to determine if he wants to retire or return for a seventh season with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2024. That timetable is now down to between about two and six weeks.
Almirola has struggled mightily in 2023. His eighth place finish in the recent race at Richmond Raceway was only his second top 10 finish of the year, and he only sits in 24th in the point standings, putting him in a must-win situation to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2021.
Who will replace Aric Almirola if he decides not to return for the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season?
Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell recently emerged as the go-to option, and for good reason. But now Bob Jenkins’ team picked up an option in his contract to keep him behind the wheel of the No. 34 Ford for a seventh season, and he immediately rewarded them with a second career victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
The team also picked up a similar option in Todd Gilliland’s contract to keep him behind the wheel of the No. 38 Ford. What does that mean for Front Row Motorsports Truck Series driver Zane Smith?
The reigning Truck Series champion has made select starts for the team throughout the 2023 season behind the wheel of the No. 38 Ford, which is still driven regularly by Gilliland. Allowing McDowell to leave for another team would have create the perfect opportunity to promote Smith, all while retaining the improving Gilliland for at least another year.
But with McDowell and Gilliland now under contract through 2024 and Front Row Motorsports not expanding, Smith is free to pursue other opportunities. A potentially vacant No. 10 Ford would certainly qualify.
Stewart-Haas Racing proved by hiring Josh Berry to replace Kevin Harvick that they value talent above all else and aren’t willing to simply bring in a “rich kid” whose dad bought his way to the Cup Series.
Hiring Smith would be an example of the same. The 24-year-old Huntington Beach, California native did not have a ride lined up for the 2022 season after back-to-back years of runner-up finishes in the Truck Series championship. He made over 100 calls, and only his call to Front Row Motorsports was returned. He immediately rewarded them with a championship.
Smith, who is currently in the midst of another multi-win season for the team, could certainly feel a sense of loyalty to the organization that placed a great level of belief in him when they hired him in 2022. But with that team unable to provide him with a better opportunity two years later, he should do whatever he can to find a steady ride elsewhere.
Perhaps that too starts with a phone call.
Of course, there are a number of other candidates to replace Almirola if he decides that it is time to hang up his fire suit after the 2023 season, but with Smith available, it’s hard not to see the benefits of the move for all parties involved. Stewart-Haas Racing get a natural fit, Smith lands with a solid team, and Ford keeps arguably the top driver in their young talent pipeline — a true win-win-win.