DARLINGTON, S.C. — The hottest driver in Sprint Cup Series doesn’t belong to NASCAR’s top team.
He doesn’t even belong to the second-best team.
He does, however, belong to a team with an iconic owner.
It’s been a season of firsts for Aric Almirola, who drives the No. 43 for NASCAR legend Richard Petty.
The best news for Almirola is Saturday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway is just the 11th race of the season.
Almirola rolls into this weekend with four consecutive top-10 finishes – the longest current streak in the Cup series. In fact, no other driver entered in the field has more than one.
Prior to this season, Almirola had never had consecutive top-10s. Also, prior to this season, he had never cracked the top 15 in points – he is currently eighth.
“We’re not as surprised as everybody else is,” said Almirola, who will start 18th. “We feel like at the end of last year we were running really strong, and we were a little disappointed at Homestead because we didn’t want the season to end.
“The beginning of this season has kind of picked up where we left off last year.”
Almirola credits much of the turnaround to the addition of crew chief, Todd Parrott last September. Parrott won the 1999 Cup championship with driver Dale Jarrett.
“Those last 10 races last year really changed everything for me,” Almirola said. “I was the guy that was the odd man out. Somebody else was going to take my seat.
“Everybody that was considered available was going to take my ride, and then I started working with Todd we really started running well.”
Almirola and the Richard Petty Motorsports organization has shown speed in recent years, won poles and won a race with driver Marcos Ambrose. What it has lacked is consistency.
Consistency is what has fueled Almirola’s run this season and prompted hope by Petty fans they may see the No. 43 in Victory Lane for the first time since 1999.
“There are two keys to success in this sport – consistency and overcoming adversity,” Parrott said. “In the last three weeks we’ve had cars that really weren’t spectacular and by the end of the race we made them to where they were pretty damn good.”
Parrott is a self-described task-master. The most important thing he learned in winning Cup races and a series championship, he said, was that details matter.
“For a smaller team, these guys on this team do a great job. There is not one detail they miss. I stay on them all the time and I’m probably a pain in the (rear) a lot of times,” Parrott said.
“That’s what you have to be to be good in this sport and to be strong. I won a championship and a lot of races and I know what it takes to do that.”
Now with the consistency in place, is winning far behind for Almirola?
“We’re close,” Parrott said. “If you consistently run in the top 10, the top-fives are going to come. When you start running in the top five, that’s when you get the wins.”
Wins or not, Almirola and the No. 43 remain on track to qualify for the Chase for the first time.
The strength of the No. 43 team’s case is best made by what it has already accomplished this season.
Almirola was 10th in the series standings when he blew a tire and finished 37th at the March race at Bristol, Tenn. That finish dropped him to 19th in the standings and the team has gained 11 positions in the six races since.
“I feel really good about what we’re doing,” Parrott said. “We have fought our way back to eighth (in points) – we haven’t been given this. We have raced our way to where we are.
“I know we can do it.”