The focus of NASCAR Cup Series silly season has shifted to Stewart-Haas Racing and Aric Almirola, with the latter still considering retirement.
In August, it was said that Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola needed to make a decision on his NASCAR Cup Series future — or lack thereof — within 30 to 60 days. With that window coming to an end, it’s hard to imagine that a decision will take much longer.
Almirola announced before the 2022 season began that it would be his last. But he began having second thoughts during the season and ultimately decided to sign a new deal to return with primary sponsor Smithfield Foods for 2023 “and beyond”, though that deal reportedly contained a way for him to retire after the 2023 season if he chose to do so.
The 39-year-old Fort Walton Beach, Florida native, who is now in his sixth season behind the wheel of the No. 10 Ford after replacing Danica Patrick in 2018, began his Stewart-Haas Racing tenure with four straight playoff appearances, and he collected two wins in those seasons.
But he missed last year’s playoffs, and he has had his worst season with the team this year, having recorded just three top 10 finishes in the season’s first 31 races.
The belief is that he will retire, which would leave Stewart-Haas Racing needing to fill the No. 10 Ford for 2024. But he has not hinted one way or the other, and there is very good reason to believe that even he doesn’t know yet for sure.
He was very open before the 2022 season about his intention to retire, and he announced that he had changed his mind well before last season ended. So more than likely, when he knows, the public will know.
And with five races remaining on the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series calendar, Aric Almirola should know the answer quite soon.
Driver changes are nothing new for Stewart-Haas Racing. They have kept the same four-driver lineup from one year to the next just once in the last seven offseasons, and even if Almirola retires, they are set to make another change in 2024, with Josh Berry set to replace the retiring Kevin Harvick behind the wheel of the No. 4 Ford.
But during that seven-year stretch, they have never replaced more than one of their four drivers in a single offseason.
Almirola retiring would leave them in a position where they would need to overhaul half of their lineup, and given their recent struggles, it’s hard to see them in anything other than a sort of rebuild mode next year — and without a true veteran driver.
Chase Briscoe and Ryan Preece are both set to return to the team next year after disappointing seasons in 2023. Rumored as the most likely replacement for Almirola is Cole Custer, whom Preece replaced this year after his overall lack of performance with Stewart-Haas Racing from 2020 to 2022 led to a demotion to the Xfinity Series.
Fellow Xfinity Series driver Riley Herbst is also a possibility. Despite his own lack of performance in the Xfinity Series, which includes no wins in four-plus seasons in top-tier equipment and a failure to qualify for this year’s playoffs, his performance in select Cup Series starts in 2023, including an impressive run at Talladega Superspeedway from start to finish this past weekend, could justify a second look by a team that is in desperate need of some sort of spark.
Regardless of Almirola’s decision, expect it to be a few years before Stewart-Haas Racing have a chance to be anywhere near as competitive as they were in the late 2010s. At least his decision will indicate what step they should take next.