Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Aric Almirola stepping away from full-time NASCAR after 2023

Aric Almirola planned to retire from full-time competition at the end of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season but eventually called it off. This time, however, he appears more committed to stepping away from the driver’s seat. On Saturday, before the penultimate race of 2023, he announced he will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing‘s #10 Ford Mustang nor will he continue as a weekly driver.

His initial retirement announcement came prior to the 2022 season before changing his mind and signing a contract extension with SHR mid-season. This time, he elected to do so closer to the end of 2023, and explained the timing was due to “a lot of factors and a lot of key players, so it’s not just about me. It’s about making sure that we did it the right way and tried to do the best thing for all of our partners, make sure we do the best thing for the organization. So it wasn’t just about me. If it was just about me I think I would have made the announcement a lot earlier just to make it to where you guys didn’t have to ask me every week, so there’s a lot of factors and there are a lot of things that happened behind closed doors that you just have to work through.”

As in 2022, his departure comes as he hopes to spend more time with the family, and he consulted them among others before making the final decision. His longtime sponsor Smithfield Foods will also end their backing at SHR with his exit, and he described discussions with the company as having “mixed emotions.”

He joined SHR in 2018 after spending six seasons at what is now Legacy Motor Club. After an impressive first year in the #10 where he won at Talladega and finished fifth in points, he and the team’s performance declined over the next three years as he never made it further than the second round of the playoffs. He missed the 2023 playoffs and is currently twenty-second in the standings with four top tens and a best run of third at Daytona.

Despite the team’s regression, he stressed that he has no qualms about returning for another season. While certainly a disappointing campaign, he still had other moments to enjoy such as winning the Xfinity Series race at Sonoma in June.

“Obviously, as a race car driver and as a competitor, you always want more,” he commented. “I would have loved to have won more races and won a championship. That’s what I went over there for. I have won some races, so I’m proud of that and we’ve had a lot of success, but I think at the end of the day that’s temporary. The friendships that I’ve made. The relationships that I’ve made, all of that will last forever and I’m grateful for that. I really am. I’ve very grateful for the six years that I’ve showed up to work every day there and they treat me like family. I feel extremely close to all of the employees over there and they brought me in with welcoming arms when I showed up in 2018 and it has been a really fun ride ever since.

“I have zero regrets (about returning) because I know that it was the right decision. It was the right decision for the race team. It was the right decision for Smithfield and it was right decision for me and my family. We’ve gotten to experience some things.

“Do I want more success? Would I wish we could have run better this year? Absolutely, like 100 percent, but we have gotten to do some awesome things as a family. We’ve gotten to do some cool trips and going to experience different things. Honestly, the race win at Sonoma, that wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t come back for this year. That win, I want to say silly but that’s not a great term for it, but as insignificant as it would seem to many people, winning that Xfinity race at Sonoma, the fact that it happened and my family was there with me and the next week was our off week and we got to really just enjoy it and celebrate it, and my wife and kids were in victory lane, we really cherished it. We soaked it all in. That moment, several other moments throughout the year like that, we would have never had that and I do not regret one minute of this season. There’s been trials, absolutely, but who doesn’t go through trials in life? I didn’t expect this year to be easy. I didn’t expect it to be all rainbows and kittens. I knew it would be a challenge. I knew that there would be ups and downs, but I signed up for it and I don’t regret one minute.”

The Sonoma win was his first on a road course and the fourth in his Xfinity career. He ran his first Xfinity race since 2018 in March at Circuit of the Americas for SS-Green Light Racing before joining RSS Racing for Sonoma.

Henceforth, he was open to making select Xfinity starts in the future rather than just quitting “cold turkey.” Other possibilities could include late model races or Craftsman Truck Series events.

“I think there are some opportunities, but it’s hard,” Almirola continued. “It’s challenging to figure out things that make sense for race teams to do it part time. Most race teams want somebody to run full-time and race for a championship, so we’ll see if we can get it worked out. I’d love to still scratch the itch, but just don’t want to do it like I have been doing it for the last twelve years, where it’s thirty-eight weeks and it’s a grind. I’m not complaining that it’s a grind because I’ve loved it and I signed up for it, but I think, for me, as I look toward the future and what my life looks like, I would like to find a better work-life balance than what I have currently.

“I’m excited just about having some weekends off, so go back to doing some late model racing like I used to do when I was a kid. If there’s an opportunity to run a handful of Truck races here and there or something like that, or run some Xfinity races, I think the door is open. I’ve had a lot of just amazing conversations over the last four to six months about different opportunities, so I want to stay involved in the industry. I love this industry. I love the people in the industry. This industry has afforded me and my family a wonderful life and I don’t want to just walk away from it.

“When I originally announced that I was going to retire over a year ago, that was the vision that I had. I had a vision of just walking away from the sport and starting a new chapter of my life and really going to explore something completely different, and I just feel like God has me here for a reason. I really do. I feel like the people and the relationships and everything, and, honestly, the opportunities to stay involved in the sport and continue to work with TV partners or different race teams. Even with drivers there are opportunities to help some young drivers speed up their learning curve and coach them along, so there are several different opportunities out there that I’m excited about and we’ll see how it all works out.”

Unless he wins on Sunday at Martinsville or the following week at Phoenix, he will end his Cup career with three victories. The first two came at superspeedways (Daytona in 2014, Talladega in 2018) while his last was at New Hampshire in 2021.

SHR did not immediately announce a successor in the #10. With Kevin Harvick‘s retirement, the team will have two new drivers in 2024 as Josh Berry takes over the #4.

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