Wallace faces uncertain future with Petty race team
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JOLIET, Ill. — Aric Almirola joked that the reporters waving digital recorders in his face were more than he had after his lone Cup victory in Daytona.
Almirola only really had one question to answer: Where are you racing in 2018, Aric?
"I can't talk about next year. You know I can't," he said Friday.
Almirola spoke in front of a generic NASCAR hauler about 10 feet from the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 hauler, fitting since he'll soon be out of the picture with his longtime team. Almirola and sponsor Smithfield Foods are both out at RPM at the end of the year as part of a divorce that rocked The King and put the future of the organization in jeopardy.
Darrell Wallace Jr. wants to steady the team in 2018.
The 23-year-old Wallace, the lone black driver in NASCAR, was expected to replace Almirola in the 43 next season. Almirola had announced he was leaving for an unspecified team — though all signs point to a ride at Stewart-Haas Racing, likely replacing Danica Patrick in the No. 10 Ford. Smithfield bolted for a chance at a more competitive future as a primary sponsor at SHR. Smithfield would not necessarily sponsor Almirola in the 10.
"I think if there would have been an offer on the table, I think it would have been interesting but Richard notified me many weeks ago that I wasn't going to be able to return to the 43 car," Almirola said.
Wallace made four starts for RPM this season when Almirola was injured. Wallace's best finish was 11th at Kentucky.
"They are pushing hard to fight through some things and I am supporting them," Wallace said at Chicagoland Speedway ahead of this weekend's playoff opener. "Nothing is set in stone. We are still trying to figure out what we need to do."
Smithfield had been associated with Petty the last six years. RPM this year downsized to one Cup car because of sponsorship reasons, and talks on a contract extension with Almirola stalled when Smithfield began looking at other options. Petty ripped Smithfield and suggested he was blindsided when the company backed out of handshake deal. Smithfield CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan called Petty's claim of a handshake deal "unequivocally and patently false."
The sniping did nothing to settle RPM's proposed future with Wallace.
Wallace's Truck Series win in 2013 was the first for a black driver in any NASCAR series since 1963. Wallace's start at Pocono this year was the first for a black driver in a Cup race since 2006. Wallace will drive in the Xfinity Series race at Chicagoland.
"It's been five years since I had a sponsor," Wallace said. "I don't understand some of the judgment calls that sponsors make, but it isn't my call."
Almirola was 20th in the standings when he broke his back in May. It caused him to miss seven races, and the team is currently 25th in the standings. He did make NASCAR's playoffs, in 2014, after he won at Daytona in July.
Petty, the Hall of Fame driver and seven-time NASCAR champion, said he is committed to "moving forward" with the No. 43 team.
Wallace, one of NASCAR's social media stars, has five years of experience in the Xfinity and Truck series, and has six wins and 21 top-five finishes. He lost his sponsorship this season in Xfinity and won his only Truck start. He's ready to team with Petty to show the sport he can be even better in Cup.
While Wallace waits for his big break, Almirola is in line for a shot with a powerhouse team after six full seasons of mediocrity that netted one career Cup win and 10 top-fives in 234 starts. Almirola said he had no idea why the 43 was never competitive under Petty's watch.
"That is not a question for me. That is a question for management and competition directors and all of them," he said. "I get paid to drive the race car and do the best I can with the race car. I try to get the most out of the race car I can every weekend."
With no official word on Almirola, SHR's 2018 lineup remains in flux.
Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch both need sponsorship on their cars, too. Busch, the Daytona 500 winner, does not have a deal with SHR for next season.
Kevin Harvick and Busch will represent SHR in the 10-race playoffs that begin Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
"I feel like I have a lot of career ahead of me," Almirola said. "I want to compete. I want to race. I want to run up front. I want to win races. I think it is important to try and stay relevant and stay in the sport."
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