Richard Petty Motorsports’ future is in limbo after primary sponsor, Smithfield Foods, announced Tuesday morning it will move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018.
RPM had believed Smithfield would sign an extension to continue as primary sponsor of the No. 43 car and driver Aric Almirola, a relationship that’s been in place since 2012. But those negotiations recently fell apart, leaving RPM without an anchor sponsor for next year and with little time to find a replacement.
On Tuesday afternoon, RPM announced Almirola won’t return to the team next season. Almirola is expected to also switch to SHR where he will replace Danica Patrick.
“Over the past few months, Smithfield had continually told me they wanted to be with us, and I recently shook hands on a deal to extend our relationship,” team co-owner Richard Petty said in a statement. “I come from a time when we did major deals with sponsors like STP on a handshake. I’m sad to see this is where we are now.
“This decision is very unexpected, and we are extremely disappointed in this late and abrupt change of direction.”
RPM is a single-car operation owned primarily by Andrew Murstein, with the seven-time Cup champion Petty a minority owner. One of NASCAR’s venerable organizations, RPM has struggled to remain consistently competitive and a lack of funding prompted the team to downsize from two cars to one this season.
That lack of on-track success factored into Smithfield’s decision to RPM for SHR, regarded as one of NASCAR’s upper-echelon organizations, having won Cup Series championships in 2011 (Tony Stewart) and 2014 (Kevin Harvick). In addition to Harvick and Patrick, the team co-owned by Stewart and Gene Haas also fields cars for Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer, who replaced the retiring Stewart this season.
“The decision to leave Richard Petty Motorsports and join Stewart-Haas Racing was difficult, but we feel this move will improve our competitiveness on the track and strengthen our position as a leading consumer packaged goods company,” Smithfield said in a statement.
Which SHR driver Smithfield will sponsor in 2018 has not been announced. Harvick is the only driver whose sponsorship inventory is full, with significant gaps on Bowyer’s and Patrick’s cars. Both Harvick and Bowyer are under contract and will continue with SHR next season, while Busch is a free agent whose return to the organization is predicated on sponsorship.
Whether Almirola and Smithfield could both leave RPM and join SHR in a package deal depends on the language in Smithfield’s contract with RPM.
“Although we’re not ready to announce the full details of the program, we look forward to this new endeavor while remaining focused on the upcoming playoffs and putting forth the best effort possible to win more races and contend for another championship,” SHR President Brett Frood said in a statement.