Tuesday will see two more dominos fall in the 2018 Silly Season and both of them are related to Smithfield Foods.
After six seasons, Danica Patrick and Stewart-Haas Racing will part ways, while Aric Almirola will not return to Richard Petty Motorsports to end a six-year tenure of his own. The two announcements were made Tuesday as SHR announced plans for a new driver/sponsor combination next season.
“It has been my honor to drive for Tony Stewart, Gene Haas and everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing for the past six seasons,” Patrick stated in a press release. “Together we earned a Daytona 500 pole, seven top-10 finishes and we also had some exciting racing along the way. My time driving for them, however, has come to an end due to a new sponsorship arrangement in 2018.”
“I wish SHR the best of luck with their new sponsorship and driver. Thanks for the memories. Right now, my focus is on the remainder of the 2017 season and finishing the year strong. I have the utmost faith in myself and those around me, and feel confident about my future.”
On Tuesday, Smithfield, which currently sponsors Almirola and the #43 of RPM, declared its intention to move to SHR in 2018. Speculation has suggested Almirola would be a candidate to replace Patrick in the #10 SHR car, as RPM and SHR are both Ford teams and the possibility exists that Smithfield would want to continue its relationship with the Florida native.
Patrick has driven for SHR since her part-time Cup schedule in 2012 before going full-time in 2013. She won the Daytona 500 pole that year, which she backed up with an 8th-place finish. In the years since, she has seven top-10 finishes with a best run of 6th at Atlanta in 2014. Despite her popularity, she has struggled in comparison to her SHR teammates. She has never finished higher than 24th in the points standings and currently sits 28th in the championship, 11 spots worse than the 3rd-highest SHR driver (Clint Bowyer).
Entering 2016, Patrick lost longtime sponsor GoDaddy, but picked up Nature’s Bakery on a three-year deal. However, Nature’s Bakery was embroiled in controversy a year later when it ended sponsorship of the #10 car shortly before the start of the 2017 season, which prompted SHR to file a lawsuit against the fig bar producer, claiming Nature’s Bakery had refused to pay the team. The crisis was subsequently averted when NB announced it would sponsor the #10 for two races in 2017.
“Sponsorship plays a vital role in our sport, and I have been very fortunate over the course of my career, but this year threw us for a curve,” Patrick added. “Our amazing partners, such as Aspen Dental and Code 3, stepped up in a big way on short notice this year and I am incredibly grateful.”
Meanwhile, Almirola has driven the #43 full-time since 2012. The 2014 Coke Zero 400 winner has 28 top tens with the team, while also winning the pole at the 2012 Coca-Cola 600. He missed seven races in 2017 after suffering back injuries in a crash at Kansas in May. He is currently 30th in points.
On Saturday, RPM announced it and Smithfield had reached an agreement for the food company to continue sponsoring the #43, but Smithfield eventually reneged on the deal and instead signed with SHR. The team has suggested Darrell Wallace Jr., who took over for Almirola while he was recovering, as a potential replacement in the #43. In four races as a substitute, Wallace has three top-20 finishes and a best finish of 11th at Kentucky.
“We have had numerous discussions with Smithfield Foods regarding the extension of our relationship dating as far back as February,” Petty said. “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.”
“Losing a sponsor of this magnitude in September is a significant set-back to Richard Petty Motorsports, but Andy (Murstein) and I are committed to moving forward with the No. 43 team. 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.”
Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan responded to Petty’s statement by describing his claim of an extension as “unequivocally and patently false. Smithfield’s numerous discussions with RPM over the past several months focused exclusively around one issue: RPM’s inability to deliver on the track and the organization’s repeated failure to present a plan to address its lack of competitiveness.
“Smithfield is a performance driven company and we demand performance from the people we do business with. For that reason — and that reason alone — Smithfield decided not to renew its contract with RPM when it expires at the end of this year. It is very unfortunate and disheartening that RPM has chosen to disseminate false statements regarding our communications to NASCAR fans who we have supported wholeheartedly with more than a $100 million investment in the sport over the last several years.”
As the 2018 season approaches, RPM has been in tumultuous times. In late August, the team put its Mooresville shop up for sale, while rumors surfaced about RPM merging with Richard Childress Racing. The team has denied the reports, but its sponsorship, driver, and manufacturer lineups have yet to be announced.
Featured images by Stewart-Haas Racing and Matthew T. Thacker, LAT Images