Race Weekend Central

Could Jenson Button Succeed a Retiring Aric Almirola?

Aric Almirola, after changing his mind about retirement last year, may well be on track to do it again this year.

Almirola signed a multi-year contract in 2022 after beginning the year announcing his retirement at the end of the season. Expectations were high at Stewart Haas Racing to begin this season; in addition to Almirola’s return, Ryan Preece was an exciting new driver for the team, Chase Briscoe seemed poised to make a big leap going forward, and Kevin Harvick planned to go out in style in his own retirement season.

Instead, the only bright spot has been Harvick’s season, in which he is currently fifth in points. The next SHR driver in points is Preece down in 25th, with Almirola right behind him in 26th. The team was just assessed the largest penalty in NASCAR history (outside of lifetime bans) with Briscoe, who would still only be 20th in points if said penalty hadn’t occurred.

All of this has led to Almirola being a little less committal to coming back for another year after 2023.

The team already has a couple of options in-house if Almirola were to retire. Cole Custer has Cup experience and is a race winner, but he underperformed last year. After being demoted, he followed that up with a NASCAR Xfinity Series season that so far has not been as dominant as one would expect considering his success in that series prior to his Cup promotion.

The other option would be Riley Herbst. Herbst is still largely an unknown quantity at the Cup level and has traditionally brought funding to his race teams that Custer doesn’t. But Herbst hasn’t been able to win in multiple seasons at the national series level, and hasn’t even finished second in NXS since 2020.

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Both of these options are really not flattering, but they would be the only ones the team seems to have in the event of a vacancy outside of Harvick. Josh Berry isn’t an option because he’s been all but confirmed at this point to be Harvick’s successor in the No. 4 Ford. Ryan Newman has become associated with Ford through his part-time role with Rick Ware Racing, but has been very negative on the new car and likely wouldn’t accept an offer from his old pal Tony Stewart to drive full-time for him again.

The team has one completely off the wall option, and one I can’t believe I’m writing about in 2023. But alas, here it is: Jenson Button is very much a viable option for Stewart Haas Racing in 2024.

Now, there are a number of qualifiers there. First and foremost would be that Button would need an expanded schedule with Rick Ware Racing in the fall months this year to better prepare him for 2024. The second is that Button, who turns age 44 in January, would not be expected to race in NASCAR for more than a year or two.

But Button reportedly does have desire for more than just a few road course cameos a year in stock cars. Prior to his first NASCAR race back in March, Button revealed that he was interested in racing at an oval.

Joe Saward, a prominent F1 journalist, noted this in a column following the Australian Grand Prix a couple of weeks following Button’s NASCAR race:

“One [story worth mentioning] was that Jenson Button is so enthused by his recent adventure in NASCAR that he is seriously looking at trying to become a full-time NASCAR driver in the future, on ovals as well as road courses, and as international drivers are what NASCAR is desperate to get these days, that could happen. Jenson is certainly up for it.”

With Button’s agreement with Ware being a joint agreement with SHR, Button is already in the house. If Almirola retires and Button is willing to commit to the NASCAR grind, it shouldn’t take much for a deal to close. Button and Stewart could even do it over a plate/mug of soda cookies, like the old days.

The chief negative to Button racing for SHR full time would be his unfamiliarity racing on ovals. I actually think Button’s trademark smooth driving style would adapt much better to NASCAR than other former F1 drivers such as Juan Pablo Montoya or Scott Speed.

Ovals probably wouldn’t be his strong suit, but I can definitely see him becoming a competent oval driver. It only took Montoya four races into his full-time rookie season to score his first career top five, doing so at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Now, let’s look at the positives. Button would be a fantastic teammate and would be an excellent mentor to his younger teammates Preece, Briscoe, and potentially Berry on everything not related to driving. He’d be able to lead the team with Harvick’s retirement and serve as an elder statesman for both the team and the garage at large.

His status as a Formula One World Champion would attract constant media attention, which would allow his younger teammates to continue developing without as much of a microscope over them. If Berry goes to SHR, he would probably need a bit of an adjustment time with his new team, and Button would be able to distract from a lot of that with his own adjustment time.

An Almirola retirement would mean there’s a decent chance that Smithfield would go with him. Button would be able to attract outside sponsorship better than both Herbst and Custer, and Mobil 1’s already existing relationship with both parties would almost certainly strengthen.

If the team has any plans to feature Custer or Herbst in Cup in the future, I don’t think either driver would be too heartbroken over a Button signing. Just to throw a name out there: If Todd Gilliland was coming instead, then it would be a bad sign for Custer and Herbst. But with Button, he’d probably only be in the car for a year or two before retiring from age.

And even from a competition standpoint, I know Custer has the Cup win at the now defunct Kentucky Motor Speedway. Would you trust him or Herbst to win a race, any race, before the playoffs over Button? With all of the road courses on the Cup schedule?

Because that’s ultimately what the goal should be there. This is a race team in need of some serious rebuilding, and Button would be a solid hand to have if the goal is to rebuild around Briscoe. Almirola could serve as one as well, but if he chooses not to, it seems pretty obvious who the team should go with in that seat.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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