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With Danica Patrick undecided on her NASCAR future, a replacement driver is named

Brendan Marks, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in Auto Racing

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. -- At a Wednesday morning news conference at its team headquarters, Stewart-Haas Racing announced that Aric Almirola will replace Danica Patrick on its team next year.

Almirola will drive the No. 10 car sponsored by Smithfield, which had announced it would leave Richard Petty Motorsports for SHR earlier this season. Smithfield has previously sponsored Almirola at Richard Petty Motorsports for the past six seasons.

Almirola, 33, has one Cup Series win on his resume -- the 2014 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona -- in his 10 years of racing -- at the Cup Series level. He also has three victories in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and two in the Camping World Truck Series.

"Christmas came early for me," Almirola said Wednesday. "This is an unbelievable day for me, to have this opportunity I've worked my whole life, my whole career for an opportunity like this."

Almirola said Richard Petty Motorsports told him over the summer that they would be moving in a different direction after this season. At that point, Almirola said he put out feelers to a number of teams since "desperation set in," at which point he linked up with Stewart-Haas.

Almirola replaces Patrick, who has been arguably the sport's best ever female driver. Patrick began driving full time in the Cup Series in 2012 after transitioning from IndyCar. Patrick has not said where she will drive in 2018, but she has mentioned the possibility that her NASCAR career will end after this season.

Meanwhile, Almirola will get another shot to prove himself at the Cup Series level. He joins several other successful drivers at SHR, most notably Kevin Harvick, who will compete for a championship later this month at Homestead, Fla. Kurt Busch, who made the playoffs for SHR this season, is also not under contract for next season but has said a return is not out of the question.

"For this car, we thought this was the perfect fit," Stewart-Haas co-owner Tony Stewart said. "When we thought this could be an opportunity, I mean this was full steam ahead. We didn't deviate from the plan on this car once we started."

Almirola, who currently drives the No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports, had his best season in the Cup Series in 2014, when he recorded his only win and finished a career-best 16th in the final standings.

This season has been less successful for him, as a back injury forced him to miss several races in the middle of the year. Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr. filled in for Almirola in those races he missed, and Wallace will now take over the No. 43 from Almirola full time in 2018.

Almirola's best finishes this year were fourth at both Daytona and Talladega. He also had a chance to win the playoff race at Talladega several weeks ago, when nearly every driver crashed out, but he ultimately came fifth.

"It doesn't matter to me if there's money on the line or a trophy," Almirola said. "I'm a competitor and it doesn't matter if it's a game of Monopoly at home or I'm at the race track on Sunday trying to compete to win a race, I'm going to compete at the highest level that I know how to."

(c)2017 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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