Aric Almirola focuses on relationships, avoids talk of 2018 as RPM exit nears

Logan Whitton/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

JOLIET, Ill. — Try as they might, the media couldn’t get Aric Almirola to confirm any of his 2018 plans. But the Floridian did shed light into his current situation, confirming his leave of Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM) at year’s end while acknowledging the good times he’s had on his six-year journey with the organization.

“I have enjoyed my time at RPM,” Almirola said. “We had six good years together. I was able to be one of the lucky ones to go to victory lane in the 43 car and I have had a great time there. It has been a lot of fun.”

Almirola, 33, was thrust into the spotlight in the week following the regular season finale for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series when his sponsor, Smithfield Foods, confirmed that they were leaving RPM for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018. RPM owner Richard Petty and Smithfield Foods traded barbs in official statements after the news broke, with RPM confirming Almirola out of their iconic No. 43 Ford for the coming year.

The announcement also led Danica Patrick to confirm she won’t be back with SHR, while RPM crew chief Drew Blickensderfer told FOX Sports’ “NASCAR Racehub” that the organization hopes to bring in Darrell Wallace Jr., though struggles with sponsorship that may prevent the move.

While he wouldn’t confirm anything his 2018 plans, Almirola couldn’t help but admit that he’d never seen a similar circumstance in his career.

“No, I can’t say that I have,” Almirola said. “I think looking back on when I got my opportunity at RPM back in 2012, I think they were going through something kind of similar when Best Buy left and AJ (Allmendinger) left to go to Penske. That is how I got my opportunity. I think that situation is probably as similar as I have seen.”

Stuck in the middle of the feud, Almirola claimed his sole focus to be excelling over the final 10 races of 2017.

“I am not really going to get in the middle of all that,” Almirola said. “My job is to drive the race car. That is what I am going to do and I will do it to the best of my abilities like I always do. I will finish the last 10 races of the year on a high note hopefully and we will go from there.”

While Petty has publicly fought with Smithfield Foods, Almirola said he and ‘The King’ have remained on good terms with their partnership drawing to a close.

“We talked in Richmond and he treated me perfectly normal which I found out that he knew in Richmond and then this weekend so far he has already shook my hand and hugged me and told me we are going to go out and do the best we can these last 10 weeks,” Almirola said. “You have to remember that me and him have a relationship.

“I think it is important you all understand. While yes, this is business and sport and a lot of livelihoods on the line, we are all still people and all have relationships. I have built a relationship with RP the last six years that has gone from car owner to friend to like family. I think that relationships will stay.”

Almirola also remains confident that he and his team can remain close and cohesive as a unit.

“I have already spent a lot of time with the guys on my team,” Almirola said. “You have to remember these guys on the team are like family to me. I have been around most of these guys for the whole six years I have been here. We have a great relationship and mean a lot to each other. For each other I think it is important we don’t let this get in the way of our relationship. At the end of the day we are still people.”

The feud between Smithfield Foods and RPM may not be over, and Almirola may be approaching an inevitable change, but the 2014 Coke Zero 400 accepts the move as a part of being in the NASCAR garage.

“Every driver, every race team goes through changes,” Almirola said. “We see it all the time. You are seeing it right now, not just with the 43 team but with a lot of teams in the garage. Change is inevitable. It always happens and it is all about how you learn from it and pick up and keep going.”

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