KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — Aric Almirola can’t wait to start what he considers his best opportunity to win races when he joins Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018.
But Almirola finds himself with a full-season sponsorship from Smithfield as he replaces Danica Patrick starting next year.
“There were some times that I thought it wasn’t going to work out for me,” Almirola said after a news conference Wednesday at SHR. “Finding out that Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth were on the market and looking for opportunities, I was really nervous.
“I’m grateful that Tony [Stewart] and Gene Haas believe in me and the people at Smithfield believe in [me] because there was other talent out there they could have chosen. For them to pick me gives me a lot of confidence.”
Team co-owner Stewart insisted that he targeted hiring Almirola, whom he has known for 13 years since Almirola joined Joe Gibbs Racing as part of its diversity program. Almirola used to test cars for Stewart, and Stewart said ever since Almirola “won” the 2007 Xfinity Series race at Milwaukee — a late-arriving Denny Hamlin replaced Almirola during the race and took the checkered flag — that he was convinced in Almirola’s ability.
“We had worked on this long before Kenseth, but even once Matt came available, for this car, we felt this was the perfect fit,” Stewart said. “I was real excited from day one to try to get Aric in this car.
“We’ve got a great history together, and when we thought this could be an opportunity, this was full steam ahead. … Aric has definitely paid his dues and proven in the past — I don’t think he ever got the right opportunity that was the right fit for him.”
Almirola has spent six years at Richard Petty Motorsports, where he has one win and 10 top-5 finishes and hasn’t ended a season better than 16th in the standings.
Prior to joining RPM, Almirola had driven Cup cars part time at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing before driving an Xfinity car at JR Motorsports. The SHR opportunity is his first full-time Cup opportunity with a team that is considered a championship-contending organization.
As far as social media buzz that SHR could have hired someone better, Almirola dismissed it.
“I don’t care,” Almirola said. “I’m a race car driver, and I want to compete. I feel like I’ve done a really good job with the equipment that we have [at RPM].”
While SHR announced that Smithfield would sponsor the car two months ago, the Almirola announcement was made Wednesday — a week after Smithfield agreed to continue its partnership with RPM but not with its logo on the car.
Both Smithfield executive vice president John Pauley and Almirola said there were no contractual issues that kept them from leaving RPM to join SHR together. Pauley said his company is performance-driven and wanted to keep the continuity with Almirola.
“When we sat down [with Stewart], we started talking about Aric’s ability to win races and compete, and he was a huge advocate,” Pauley said. “For me, that’s all I needed to hear. On a personal level with Aric, he’s a tremendous individual and checks every box.
“Winning and being competitive, I lean on [the team] a bit. They were 100 percent supportive.”
SHR still has not named a driver for its No. 41 Cup car for 2018. Stewart has said the team is trying to re-sign Kurt Busch.
“We’re gaining a lot of momentum on that,” Stewart said about getting a driver signed. “We’re fairly close.”