breaking news

BREAKING NEWS

today is Feb 04, 2023

Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

With Aric Almirola not retiring after the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season, could Stewart-Haas Racing have to replace both him and Kevin Harvick in 2024?

Despite the fact that he announced before the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season began that it would be his 15th and final year in the series, Aric Almirola made the decision to unretire and return as the driver of Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 10 Ford for 2023.

The move eliminated the need for what was once seen as an inevitable driver change at the four-car Ford organization following the 2022 season.

Almirola’s return had been rumored for a few months leading up to the announcement, and it was seen as increasingly likely to the point where it was reported that he had made up his mind before confirmation actually came. Almirola initially denied the report, but it was clear that he was leaning in this direction.

Will the specifics of this announcement prevent what could have been a headache for the team for the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season?

While it was initially believed that Almirola would return for another year at most, his new multi-year deal ties him and primary sponsor Smithfield to the No. 10 Ford through at least the 2024 season.

On paper, this prevents Stewart-Haas Racing from needing to make two changes to their driver lineup after the 2023 season. However, Almirola still reportedly has the option to retire after 2023, which could create an unfavorable situation for the team in 2024.

Kevin Harvick is under contract to drive the No. 4 Ford through the 2023 season, and while he proved he was far from “washed up” with two wins in 2022 following his first winless season in over a decade in 2021, he has admitted that the initial plan was for him to retire at the end of 2021.

Already the sport’s oldest full-time driver by almost five years, will he sign another new contract before his time in the series is up?

If Harvick wants to be back, he’ll be back; there is little doubt about it. If not, however, Almirola’s new deal should technically leave Stewart-Haas Racing with just one seat to fill in 2024 as opposed to two.

But a post-2023 retirement for Aric Almirola, in addition to Kevin Harvick, would leave them with two seats to fill at once.

Stewart-Haas Racing are no strangers to making driver changes, having made one after six of the last seven seasons, but making two changes would be new territory for them. During those six offseasons, they never made more than one change.

Based on what we know now, the surest detail about Stewart-Haas Racing’s lineup moving forward is Chase Briscoe behind the wheel of the No. 14 Ford.

After a less than stellar rookie season in 2021, Briscoe made good improvements in 2022, finding victory lane for the first time in his career at Phoenix Raceway and locking himself into the playoffs. He even managed to turn in some of his best performances of the season and advance to the round of 8, despite being a common first round elimination pick.

Even in a day and age where loyalty isn’t exactly the most common trait among drivers and teams, it’s almost impossible to see Briscoe and Stewart-Haas Racing going in different directions any time in the near future.

As for Cole Custer, things began to appear less certain throughout the 2022 season based on his performance. During his third season in the Cup Series, it was increasingly challenging to imagine him being somebody the team were going to build their future around, as he had done next to nothing to give anybody a reason to believe he could take them to the next level.

It was never a secret that Stewart-Haas Racing endured more than their fair share of struggles since the latter stages of the 2020 season, but all three of Custer’s teammates found victory lane after that. Yet Custer’s most recent top seven finish came in July 2020.

While he is the son of team executive Joe Custer, questions started being asked about what Stewart-Haas Racing’s plans were for him moving forward. Tony Stewart advocated for Ryan Preece to drive the No. 41 Ford, while Gene Haas advocated for Custer. Stewart ultimately won out, and Preece is set to replace Custer next year.

Assuming Preece has a solid year one with the team in 2023, then he and Briscoe should be set for 2024, meaning that this change eliminates the need for Stewart-Haas Racing to potentially make three changes in a single offseason.

But Preece was the driver whom many considered to be the most likely replacement for Almirola when Almirola initially announced his retirement. It goes without saying that they can’t call upon the same replacement twice.

So who would they add if not one, but two drivers leave after 2023? Custer is set to be demoted to the Xfinity Series, so he probably isn’t going to get the call to come back up, and his Xfinity Series teammate, Riley Herbst, is winless in three-plus seasons in top-tier equipment in the series.

Putting together a solid four-car lineup for the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season looked a bit easier with Aric Almirola’s return, even if Kevin Harvick does indeed retire after 2023, but things are looking less than ideal if neither one comes back.