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Richard Petty Motorsports loses primary sponsor to Stewart-Haas Racing; Aric Almirola also won’t return

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Smithfield Foods will no longer be the anchor sponsor for the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team, instead shifting to Stewart-Haas Racing next season.

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400 practice
Aric Almirola (left) talks to team owner Richard Petty (right) during practice for the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 18, 2016.
Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images

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.

"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."

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, who announced Tuesday she will not continue with the team past this season.

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 leave RPM for SHR, regarded as one of NASCAR’s upper-echelon organizations. SHR won Cup Series championships in 2011 (Tony Stewart) and 2014 (Kevin Harvick), and had two drivers (Harvick, Kurt Busch) qualify for this year’s 16-driver playoffs, which begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.

Smithfield Foods CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan pointedly disputed Petty’s belief that the two parties had a “handshake deal” for Smithfield to return as sponsor of the No. 43 car.

"RPM's claims of a 'handshake deal' to extend our sponsorship are unequivocally and patently false," Sullivan said in a statement. "Smithfield's numerous discussions with RPM over the past several months focused exclusively around one issue: RPM's inability to deliver on the track and the organization's repeated failure to present a plan to address its lack of competitiveness.

“Smithfield is a performance driven company and we demand performance from the people we do business with. For that reason -- and that reason alone -- Smithfield decided not to renew its contract with RPM when it expires at the end of this year.”

In addition to Harvick, Patrick and Busch, the team co-owned by Stewart and Gene Haas also fields a car for Clint Bowyer, who replaced the retiring Stewart this season.

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 within Smithfield’s contract with RPM. Some contracts prohibit a driver and sponsor leaving one team together to join another.

“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.