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Aric Almirola expects to remain in No. 43 rest of year

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JOLIET, Illinois — Aric Almirola is the driver for now.

Darrell Wallace Jr. is the driver for next year.

Well, maybe.

Richard Petty Motorsports’ world turned upside down this week when sponsor Smithfield Foods announced it was moving to Stewart-Haas Racing after this season.

RPM announced that Almirola would not return to the team after this season.

Signs point to Almirola moving to Stewart-Haas Racing after Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth both said this week that they’re not replacing Danica Patrick in the car. No official announcement has been made. Almirola declined to discuss his 2018 plans Friday.

With a vacant seat to fill, RPM is pitching Wallace to potential sponsors for the No. 43 car for next season. Wallace drove four races for the team this summer when Almirola was out after being injured in May at Kansas Speedway. Wallace’s best finish was 11th with the team in July at Kentucky.

“They are working hard to figure out something,’’ Wallace said Friday at Chicagoland Speedway. “What we did a couple months ago was pretty special and showcased what we can do as a pair … if we can get things worked out. I think we can bring them really good finishes, represent their brands the way they need to be and get them rolling off on the right start.”

Could Wallace, who is competing in Saturday’s Xfinity race, get into the No. 43 car before the season ends?

“I fully expect to finish the year in the 43 car,’’ Almirola said Friday. “I have a contract that says I will, so hopefully.”

RPM also has two charters. It leased one to Go Fas Racing and will get that after this season. It can either sell that charter or lease the No. 43 charter next season. Either way, the team plans to be a one-car operation again next season. The organization also is looking for a new home after not renewing for lease on its shop for after this year.

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Matt Tifft fastest in first of 2 Xfinity practices at Kentucky Speedway

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Matt Tifft ran 25 laps during Friday afternoon’s first of two NASCAR Xfinity Series practice sessions at Kentucky Speedway.

But it was just one lap that mattered the most, as Tifft (180.427 mph) emerged from the 55-minute practice as the fastest in the 36 cars that took to the track.

Brian Scott was second (179.253 mph), followed by Ryan Preece (178.465), Brandon Jones (178.288), Justin Allgaier (178.271), Ben Kennedy (178.136), Elliott Sadler (177.573), Tyler Reddick (177.544), Spencer Gallagher Jr. (177.503) and Brennan Poole (177.381).

Interestingly enough, only four of the top-10 were playoff contenders. The seven-race Xfinity playoffs begin with Saturday night’s VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300.

There will be one more practice session today from 6:30-7:25 p.m. ET.

Qualifying and the race are Saturday.

Click here for the full practice speed grid.

Christopher Bell fastest in final Truck practice at New Hampshire

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Christopher Bell was fastest in the second and final NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practice session Friday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Bell covered the 1.058-mile flat track with a top speed of 132.877 mph.

Ben Rhodes was second (132.301 mph), followed by Todd Gilliland (132.213), Matt Crafton (132.122) and Noah Gragson (132.071).

Sixth through 10th were Johnny Sauter (132.016), Austin Cindric (131.865), Grant Enfinger (131.683), Ryan Truex (131.656) and Kaz Grala ((131.533).

Qualifying for the UNOH 175 takes place Saturday at 10 a.m. ET, while the green flag for the race drops three hours later at 1 p.m. ET. Both qualifying and the race will be televised on FoxSports1.

Click here for the full speed grid from the final Truck practice.

New Hampshire to host September spectacular next year

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LOUDON, New Hampshire – Although the Cup series will not race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway next September, the track still will have racing.

Officials from New Hampshire Motor Speedway and NASCAR announced Friday that the track will host multiple series Sept. 21-22. The track will host:

  • A 250-lap NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race, the longest race in series history.
  • A 125-lap NASCAR K&N Pro Series race that will include series champions from the Mexico and Europe series.
  • A 100-lap NASCAR Pinty’s Series race in the first race for the Canadian series in the United States.

Practice and qualifying will take place on Sept. 21. Racing will be Sept. 22.

“We are creating a short-track weekend that I think fans from across the Northeast are going to be so excited about,” said David McGrath, executive vice president and general manager of the speedway.

McGrath estimates the track will attract 15,000 – 20,000 fans for the inaugural event.

“We will start there and certainly hope to grow there,” McGrath said. “We certainly have the space to do it.”

Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations, has high hopes for this event.

“Anytime we enter into a conversation about a special event like this, it’s done thinking about the long term and building,” Cassidy said. “I would like to look at this as certainly a building block on a big-time weekend for racing.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ready to move past Chicagoland woes

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LOUDON, New Hampshire — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was blunt as he looked back at last weekend’s 25th-place finish in the opening playoff race.

“It’s the worst playoff race I’ve ever had,’’ he said before quickly adding, “actually, it was the only playoff race I ever had.’’

A week after he hit the wall, had a commitment line violation and sped on pit road to finish last among the 16 playoff drivers, Stenhouse heads to a New Hampshire Motor Speedway that has been unkind to him. His average finish of 20.44 at this track is the worst among the playoff contenders.

It’s easy to peg Stenhouse, whose best finish at New Hampshire is ninth, as one of the four drivers who won’t advance to the second round after next weekend’s race at Dover International Speedway.

Stenhouse says don’t end his title hopes just yet.

“I think there are tracks you look at where you feel like, ‘Hey, we don’t run well there,’ ‘’ Stenhouse said Friday. “There are tracks you look at and average finishes aren’t as good as what you really ran, and I think New Hampshire is one of those race tracks for us.

“I can count two or three times where we’ve been in the top 10 and we come down on our last pit stop and we’ve had freak accidents on pit road that we end up restarting tail end. I think that skews a little bit on the finishes, so I think we’ve got confidence that we can run with those cars that we’re chasing.’’

He better or his playoff experience will be brief. He enters Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN) four points out of the cutoff spot.

“We keep our head up because we’re only four points out, so I think that’s the key message around the shop this week,’’ Stenhouse said. “We had, by far, the worst race we could have ever thought of having and we’re still close. I think that’s the key.”

For him to turn in a good run — and a good finish Sunday — Stenhouse said the key will be where he starts and how strong he is on restarts.

“We’ve always been really good on the long runs and you get quite a few long runs here,’’ said Stenhouse, who was 24th on the speed chart after Friday’s practice. “That seems to be our strong suit. Restarts seem to be some of the areas that we need to get better at. I was on the plane ride up today just looking at our notes from this last race and that was it. 

“We were strong on the long runs, needed to get our restarts better, and need to qualify better. These first two stages you can really run without pitting, so that first stage it’s going to be important to qualify well and make sure we put ourselves in a position to maybe get some stage points if it does go green, and our car is good on the long runs.’’

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