The most surprising performance in NASCAR this year may also be one that’s drawn the least amount of notice.
With 10 races down in the 2013 season, Aric Almirola is seventh in the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings.
You read that correctly: Aric Almirola is seventh in points, ahead of such heavyweights as Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart.
Considering that Almirola’s career-best points finish was 20th, set last year, to be in the top 10 is quite a leap ahead.
Although he hasn’t made a lot of headlines, Almirola has been fast and consistent so far this season. He has quietly strung together four consecutive top-10 finishes, a first for Richard Petty Motorsports since it was formed in 2009.
The last time a Petty had five straight top-10 finishes came in 1983, when Richard Petty himself had seven straight top 10s driving for Petty Enterprises.
In addition, Almirola is in a career-best points position right now, and the highest ranking any RPM driver has ever had after 10 races.
Almirola will have a tough challenge this weekend, as he, crew chief Todd Parrott and the rest of the No. 43 RPM team tackle Darlington Raceway, one of the most demanding tracks on the circuit.
Last year, Almirola qualified 13th and finished 19th here, a respectable run. But this time he’ll be looking for a lot more. Understandably, he’s pleased with where the team is at right now.
“We sure are on a roll lately,” Almirola said. “I think we are the only people that aren't surprised we are seventh in points and have the longest current top-10 streak in the series. Todd, the guys and I are really clicking. We worked hard over the off-season to maintain our momentum, and it worked. We just need to keep it up and start moving to top fives and hopefully a win soon.”
That said, nothing is a given at the 1.366-mile Darlington track. It has earned its nicknames — “The Track Too Tough To Tame” and “The Lady In Black” — for good reasons. Former RPM driver Kasey Kahne holds the Darlington qualifying record at 181.254 miles per hour, a shockingly fast speed for a track of this length.
“Darlington is a really tough track,” said Almirola. “Last year, I felt like I learned a lot during the race and got into a good rhythm by the end. We had a decent finish for my first time out, and only a few ‘Darlington stripes.’ Todd has a great track record here, so I should be able to feed off of his experience.”
And so, Almirola will be going for it this week.
“Obviously, our goal is to get another top-10 finish, but we are really eyeing victory lane,” he said. “I think if we can put ourselves in a good position during the majority of the race, we can have a good shot at getting the 43 (car) its first win since 1999.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.