When Stewart-Haas Racing announced that Aric Almirola would be taking over the No. 10 car for Danica Patrick next season, the move likely surprised NASCAR fans.
Not the Almirola is a bad driver by any means, but the 33-year-old only has one career Cup Series win, and there are other free agents available who have more wins and more experience. Matt Kenseth, for example, doesn't have a ride for 2018 and will likely retire, yet SHR didn't reach out to him to take over the 10 car.
Instead, they chose Almirola partly because of his relationship with sponsor Smithfield Foods. In a mailbag for SB Nation, NASCAR analyst Jordan Bianchi was asked why SHR chose Almirola over Kenseth, and he said it mostly had to do with Kenseth didn't have sponsorship to bring with him.
"But while Stewart and Smithfield execs tout Almirola's ability and say he got this chance strictly on merit, it also cannot be ignored that his five-year stint as a Smithfield spokesman certainly helped sway the company to continue its association with him," Bianchi wrote. "Nor the fact that if Kenseth had sponsorship to bring with him he would've been in the mix at SHR, Furniture Row Racing, and maybe even Hendrick Motorsports rather than in his current situation where he's essentially being forced out."
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Almirola was asked what he thought about SHR signing a better driver, and he dismissed it and said he believes he did well with Richard Petty Motorsports.
"I don't care," Almirola said via ESPN. "I'm a race car driver, and I want to compete. I feel like I've done a really good job with the equipment that we have [at RPM]."
An injury sidelined Almirola for several races this season, and he had three top-5s on the year. His lone win came in 2014 at Daytona.
His best finish for the season came in 2014 when he finished 16th in the points.
NASCAR fans might not like it, but sponsorship is one of the most important factors in determining which drivers can sign deals with teams. Kenseth is 45, and sponsors are more likely to attach themselves to younger drivers than they are for older drivers who could retire soon.
Almirola could find more success with a better team, so it's possible SHR is making the best move for the long term. But not taking Kenseth will still leave some NASCAR fans with questions if Almirola doesn't race well next season.