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ANDERS: Almirola has best shot at SHR

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Jordan Anders

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By JORDAN ANDERS
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The available seats seem to be running out in one of the wildest versions of NASCAR musical chairs in recent memory, and maybe the wildest ever.

A major question was given a fairly predictable answer when Stewart-Haas Racing announced Aric Almirola will take over its No. 10 car next season, replacing Danica Patrick. Almirola’s signing was rumored for weeks, if not months, especially once it was announced Smithfield Foods — which has a close relationship with Almirola developed during their time at Richard Petty Motorsports — was coming on board with SHR to sponsor that ride.

Almirola isn’t an old guy by any stretch at only 33 years old, and this is just his sixth full season at the Cup level (although not technically a full season because he did miss eight races with a fractured vertebrae after a nasty crash at Kansas in May.) He is a guy, though, with only one win to his name — a rain-shortened victory in the 2014 July race at Daytona — and only 31 top-10s in 242 career starts. In the last three seasons, he has led a total of just six laps.

The No. 10 car represents easily the most competitive Monster Energy Cup Series equipment Almirola has ever been in, though that’s not a particularly high bar to clear. The guy broke into the Cup Series behind the wheel of the No. 8 car in the dying days of Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, then ran some races with Phoenix Racing in 2011 before jumping in RPM’s No. 43 car in 2012, so Stewart-Haas is a clear upgrade.

SHR’s No. 10 car has never come close to a victory in its six years of existence with Patrick behind the wheel. Patrick never seemed to fully become comfortable behind the wheel of stock cars after her transition from open-wheel, which makes it difficult to tell whether the underwhelming results produced by the No. 10 team in that time were the result of her own shortcomings or those of the team itself.

Almirola has to be viewed as an upgrade in that car simply in terms of the fact he’s won races before, with three Xfinity Series wins to his credit in addition to the one Cup Series win, but the clock is ticking for him to prove himself a driver capable of consistently running up front and contending to make the playoffs. Though he’s not old like I mentioned before, there will be plenty of scrutiny given to his signing if that team continues to underperform, especially when you consider SHR passed over the likes of Matt Kenseth to sign him.

Almirola is a likable guy who have proven valuable enough to Smithfield that the company was willing to stick with him after the pair divorced RPM. He and the No. 10 car are two entities that have experienced little-to-no substantial success at NASCAR’s top level, but seeing what results come from the pairing of the two of them will be one of 2018’s more intriguing storylines to come from this season’s game of musical chairs.

Phased out: Speaking of Kenseth, he announced at Texas last weekend he would not be seeking a full-time ride for 2018 and would be stepping away from the Cup Series.

Kenseth is one of the most underappreciated drivers of this era, having amassed 38 Cup wins — including a pair of Daytona 500 titles — and the 2003 Cup championship. At 45 years old, though, he got passed up for 21-year-old Erik Jones, who will replace him in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 car next season.

It’s a shame to see Kenseth being sort of phased out of the sport seemingly against his will. Despite not having a win this season, he’s clearly shown he can still be competitive at the Cup level, and he’s just a year removed from a season in which he finished fifth in points. Unfortunately, though, this is an era where money and youth are paramount. It’s far easier to sell a kid like Jones to a sponsor than an aging veteran like Kenseth.

Hopefully, this isn’t the last we’ll see of the future Hall of Famer, even if he pops up in one of NASCAR’s other series. Kenseth is underrated as a personality in the garage, and it will be a shame if we’re seeing his career end before he’s ready to hang up his helmet.

PREDICTION

Five guys are racing for one spot in the Championship 4 next Sunday at Homestead. Ryan Blaney is on the pole and Kevin Harvick still owns this place, but I like a guy today who has had consistent speed throughout the playoffs and led 106 laps at Phoenix in March.

PICK: Chase Elliott.

Contact Jordan Anders at janders@reflector.com, 252-329-9594 or follow @ReflectorJordan on Twitter.

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