The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season has 10 races remaining, but some teams are already making plans for 2022. 23XI Racing and Trackhouse Racing have both locked up their second drivers, but several others still have work to do. Stewart-Haas Racing and Aric Almirola currently sit atop the list.
The driver of the No. 10 SHR Ford Mustang is heading toward free agency two years after signing his last extension with the team. 2021 has not been his best year for several reasons, but Almirola is back in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year after winning a stunning race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Now he will strive to make it to the championship four for the first time in his career.
“It shows how consistent he is for sure,” SHR co-owner Tony Stewart told Heavy in a recent interview. “And that’s something that’s really important to me as an owner. We made a big move a couple of years ago switching the 14 and 10 car teams. To see [crew chief Mike Bugarewicz] and him really grow together is something that I’m proud of.”
There are some questions about Almirola and his future with the team. The driver told “TobyChristie” in early August that he has a “multi-year contract” with SHR and that he expects to return to the team in 2022. However, the outlet reached out to the race team but received no responses about Almirola’s status.
SHR currently has a former champion in Kevin Harvick, the defending Rookie of the Year in Cole Custer, and a rookie in Chase Briscoe rounding out the stable of drivers. Bringing back Almirola would keep the team together, but the organization has yet to reveal if they will do so.
A key factor in the decision will be whether longtime sponsor Smithfield Foods continues to back the veteran. According to NASCAR Media, Smithfield and Almirola reached a one-year extension prior to the 2021 season, keeping them together for a 10th consecutive year. However, this deal will expire after the championship race at Phoenix in November.
JTG Daugherty’s Chartered Entry Remains a Mystery
While Almirola is the next big name on the free-agent list after Ross Chastain and Kurt Busch both landed deals with new teams, he is not the only driver with past wins at superspeedways looking for a job. The same is true for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is nearing the end of his second season with JTG Daugherty Racing.
The driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet Camaro landed in the No. 47 ahead of the 2020 season after Roush Fenway Racing unceremoniously cut ties with him. Stenhouse has yet to win a race in the stock car, but he has posted six top-10 finishes and four top-fives, including a runner-up in the March 29 dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Of the two pending free agents at JTG Daugherty — Ryan Preece is the other — Stenhouse is in control of a car with guaranteed starts due to only one charter. JTG Daugherty sold the other to Spire Motorsports ahead of the season and put Preece’s No. 37 in a precarious position. However, he has competed in every single race, putting together strong enough performances to offset the lack of practices or qualifying sessions.
There is no guarantee that Stenhouse will be back in the building in 2022, but he has expressed a desire to return to JTG Daugherty. He explained to “Forbes” in April that the team operates like a family and that he had his people working on the contract side of the business.
“I enjoy it here,” Stenhouse said. “I love being here and I love trying to build the team around the people we have. I’m looking forward to continuing the process of getting better and better every week. I want to be here.”
2 Ford Drivers May Have Fewer Options in 2022
There are multiple drivers examining their future options as the end of the 2021 season approaches, but two mentioned the most frequently are part of the Ford family. Ryan Newman will lose his seat in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford Mustang at the end of the year when Brad Keselowski takes over as a driver-owner. Matt DiBenedetto, on the other hand, will lose his spot at Wood Brothers Racing to incoming rookie Harrison Burton.
Newman has not won since the 2017 season, but he has contended for wins at times. In 2021, in particular, he finished fifth in the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway. He also capped off the regular season by avoiding all of the massive incidents at Daytona International Speedway and taking third place overall.
Newman has expressed the desire to pursue a Cup Series championship before retiring, but will he have a seat? The answer remains unclear, especially with only 36 charters currently in play. The majority of seats already have drivers while newer teams such as GMS Racing have yet to reveal whether they will pursue a full-time schedule.
DiBenedetto is in a similar position after finishing out the regular season with a total of seven top-10s and three top-fives. The team has improved throughout the season, but DiBenedetto has yet to reach Victory Lane in his Cup Series career. Now Wood Brothers Racing will go with a different driver for the No. 21 Ford Mustang.
If DiBenedetto can not land a full-time ride in the Cup Series, he could have other options. He previously told media members that he will “entertain anything” in 2022. This includes going down to the Xfinity Series.