It’s mid-September, and the NASCAR silly season is really heating up.
Teams need to get deals done, sooner rather than later, whether they like it or not. The paperwork needs to be filled out as organizations begin to map out their line-ups for the 2018 season and beyond.
However, as crunch time hits, Smithfield Foods took a massive bite out of Richard Petty Motorsports’ future. The meat processing firm is departing the mid-tier team for the much-larger and more powerful Stewart-Haas Racing, which can give the company a larger return-on-investment (ROI) as the company continues to show its dedication to the sport.
But now that Smithfield and driver Aric Almirola are leaving RPM, it leaves the Ford team in a peculiar situation and presents many unknowns moving forward.
The move also puts Danica Patrick out of a ride at SHR. Now, the former IndyCar Series driver must decide whether it’s time to start a family or move onto her next NASCAR gig.
Have a question for NASCAR Mailbox? Tweet me at @JosephNASCAR or shoot me an email at Joseph.Wolkin@gmail.com!
Q: Now that Smithfield is leaving Richard Petty Motorsports, what is next for them? – Stacey H., Atlanta
A: This is an awful situation for RPM. Smithfield reportedly had a hand-shake agreement with RPM co-owner Andrew Murstein and CEO Brian Moffitt.
Murstein, 53, is a medallion expert in New York City, while Moffitt formerly served as Petty’s sponsorship guru. The dynamic duo, however, have hit a potential pot hole that might give them permanent damage that can’t be fixed.
Having Murstein involved in NASCAR is vital for the sport, being he also owns the New York Lizards, a Major League Lacrosse team. With an owner who sees how other entities operate, he provides crucial feedback in helping NASCAR owners survive.
But since the duo took control of RPM, the team has faced a massive undertaking. From separating itself from Roush Fenway Racing and creating its own chassis department to downsizing to a single-car organization, RPM is a completely different team from what it was when Murstein and Moffitt took over.
With Smithfield, the organization’s primary sponsor departing, it leaves a massive funding gap in the company’s plans.
Smithfield is one of the handful of nearly full-time sponsors in NASCAR’s premier division, being slapped on the No. 43 car for about 30 races per year. While it seems likely Almirola will follow Smithfield to SHR, there is the possibility the company could align itself with a veteran at SHR, with Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and others still in limbo.
RPM’s best bet will be to sign Darrell Wallace Jr. to pilot the No. 43 machine for the future. Wallace was incredibly impressive in his four-race stint with the team, earning a best finish of 11th at Kentucky Speedway.
Working with the RPM crew, he settled in quite nicely after fainting on pit road following the contest at Pocono Raceway. Moreover, NASCAR and Ford executives are pushing to get Wallace into a full-time Cup ride, and this is clearly the perfect opportunity for him.
Aligning the Petty name with one of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity graduates is a great way to gather attention from sponsors and fans. However, for some mind-blowing reason, NASCAR’s lone African-American driver doesn’t have a sponsor committed to helping grow his career, and that will need to change if he’s going to be with RPM — or any Cup team — in 2018.
Let’s also remember that RPM has a second charter, which is being leased to Go Fas Racing this year. If RPM doesn’t want to keep the charter, they will need to sell it, and that could give them a solid income if they can’t find a full sponsor fleet to start the year.
Expect to also see current RPM sponsors step up to the plate if the team can’t find other companies to come on board, especially early in the season. But with NASCAR and Ford pushing for deals left and right, RPM can very well excel in 2018 with Wallace driving its main entry.
Q: Where will Danica Patrick end up? – Mark K., Charlotte
A: I’m not totally convinced Patrick will remain as a full-time NASCAR driver after this season.
Look, she’s 35 and has been dating Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for several years. Additionally, she’s been setting herself up for a post-NASCAR career, with several projects off-the-track that will set her up financially for years to come.
People keep pointing to sponsorship woes causing her departure, but even after the whole Nature’s Bakery debacle, her car has been fully-funded. However, with Smithfield moving over, it’s likely they will take over a chunk of the sponsorship on the No. 10 entry, meaning SHR can move her sponsors over to teammates Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch should they decide to not stay with Patrick.
But if Patrick can’t find a quality ride, she might choose to hang up her helmet and start a family (if she wants to start one). Should she continue racing, however, the options are wide open if she retains her current sponsors.
The deal she has with Aspen Dental alone might be enough to propel her to a high-quality ride in NASCAR’s premier division. With entries open at Richard Childress Racing, Furniture Row Racing and a few other mid-level teams, there are options for her to continue driving.
Patrick’s impact on the sport hasn’t been as immense as NASCAR expected it to be, with her progress stalling mid-pack on the racetrack. But she still serves as one of the few recognizable names in the sport, and with veterans retiring, it is a prime time for her to use her brand to land her a job.
A great spot would be at RCR, re-aligning Aspen Dental with the team and giving her one last shot at rejuvenating her career. As per usual, it will all come down to money.