The Top 4 Candidates to Join Josh Berry as a Stewart-Haas Racing Newcomer If Aric Almirola Retires
Stewart-Haas Racing made big news earlier this week when the organization announced that Josh Berry, a NASCAR Xfinity Series driver for JR Motorsports, will replace Kevin Harvick next season in the No. 4 SHR Ford.
Harvick, who’s retiring from competition at the end of 2023, might not be the only driver for whom Stewart-Haas needs to fill a seat, however. Yet to make a decision on his plans for 2024 is Aric Almirola, the driver of SHR’s No. 10 Ford.
Almirola actually planned to retire at the end of last season and even announced his intentions to do as such before SHR officials convinced him to return for another year. But Almirola has remained noncommittal about his intentions beyond 2023, which raises the question of who SHR will get to take his place if he decides to actually call it quits this time.
Next, we’ll look at four drivers who don’t have firm plans for 2024 and would likely be considered for the No. 10 car if Almirola moves on.
1. Zane Smith
The reigning NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, Zane Smith, is once again running the full truck schedule for Front Row Motorsports this year as he seeks to become only the second back-to-back champion in series history.
In addition to that pursuit, Smith is making select NASCAR Cup Series starts this season for Front Row, where he’s sharing a ride with Todd Gilliland.
Smith would be a natural choice for Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 10 Ford for a few reasons. One is that he’s already in the Ford family. Another is that he’s enjoying another stellar season on the truck side, having gone to Victory Lane twice in 2023 after winning four races a season ago.
Perhaps most important of all, Smith has shown flashes of what he could accomplish as a full-time Cup Series driver, having posted a pair of top-15 finishes — including a top-10 in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte — in his five Cup starts with Front Row.
2. Todd Gilliland
Another driver that Stewart-Haas Racing might pursue as a replacement for Aric Almirola is the driver who’s sharing a Cup Series ride with Zane Smith at Front Row Motorsports.
That would be Todd Gilliland, the son of retired NASCAR Cup Series driver David Gilliland. Despite learning before the season that he wouldn’t run a full schedule with Front Row as he did in 2022, Gilliland has posted several strong results — including three top-10s and four top-15 finishes in a row from mid-March through early April.
And, like Smith, Gilliland is already in the Ford family, which doesn’t do anything to hurt his prospects as the future driver of SHR’s No. 10 Ford.
3. Michael McDowell
Part of Josh Berry’s appeal to Stewart-Haas Racing was that the organization’s decision-makers believe his experience — he’s 32 years old and has been driving stock cars for well over a decade — will allow him to compete for wins and championships from Day One.
If SHR wants to go a similar route in filling its next seat, Michael McDowell seems like an obvious candidate. A 16-year veteran of the Cup Series, McDowell has spent his entire career in subpar equipment but enjoyed dramatic improvement over the last three years despite still lacking the resources of the sport’s top-tier drivers.
McDowell has just one win in 445 Cup Series starts, but it couldn’t have come on a bigger stage than where it did — the 2021 Daytona 500. Last season, McDowell recorded a career-high 12 top-10 finishes, and he’s posted three more top-10s in the first 16 races of 2023.
However, the biggest upside to hiring McDowell — his experience — might ironically be his biggest downside because, at 38 years old, he’s just a few months younger than Almirola and also could be nearing retirement.
4. Cole Custer
If Stewart-Haas Racing wants to keep its next hire in the family, Cole Custer would be the logical choice. After three mostly disappointing seasons in an SHR Cup Series car, Custer lost his ride for 2023 but remained with the organization as one of its drivers in the Xfinity Series — where he went to Victory Lane nine times from 2017-2019.
Custer has responded well since his demotion, winning a race this season and being one of the Xfinity Series’ top overall performers. Would Custer get another shot at a Cup Series ride with SHR if Almirola’s seat became available next year?
It’s possible. And it doesn’t hurt that his father, Joe Custer, is SHR’s co-president and may have some say in the matter.