Weekend Preview: Almirola, Vickers looking to make big gains at Darlington; Fantasy Focus says keep an eye on Gordon, Hamlin
With 198 wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the No. 43 car has seen its fair share of success.
Most of it can be attributed to one man -- Richard Petty, who won at the wheel of the No. 43 an incredible 192 times and is the current owner of the legendary car that often still sports the famous Petty Blue shade.
Other drivers who have visited Victory Lane in the No. 43 include Lee Petty (Richard's father), Jim Paschal, Bobby Hamilton and John Andretti. The car, however, hasn't crossed the finish line first since John Andretti did it at Martinsville Speedway in April 1999.
In all, the drivers of the No. 43 have accumulated 798 top-10 finishes, second only to the 898 collected by the drivers of the No. 11 race car. Thirty-six of the No. 43's top 10s have come at Darlington Raceway, with Richard Petty posting three victories.
The four most recent top 10s for the No. 43 have come in the past four races with current driver Aric Almirola, who finds himself in eighth place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings, his highest position ever. Almirola will be looking to continue his hot streak during Saturday's Bojangles' Southern 500 (6:45 p.m. ET, FOX) at Darlington Raceway.
"Obviously, our goal is to get another top-10 finish, but we are really eyeing Victory Lane."
-- Aric Almirola
"We sure are on a roll lately," said the Tampa, Fla., native. "Todd (Parrott), 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."
Last year marked the first full season Almirola drove for Richard Petty Motorsports after last competing in the series in 2010, splitting time between Phoenix Racing and RPM. Almirola replaced Kasey Kahne in the No. 9 RPM Ford after the latter moved to Red Bull Racing toward the end of the season.
Almirola didn't compete in the premier series in 2011, but instead ran a full NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule in the No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet. He collected seven top-fives and 18 top-10s, finishing fourth in the final points standings.
During the offseason between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, Almirola rejoined RPM and was given his first full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup ride piloting the historic No. 43 car.
Greg Erwin started the 2012 season as Almirola's crew chief, but was replaced by Mike Ford after the ninth race. Seventeen races later, Parrott took over as crew chief for the No. 43, teaming up with Almirola for the final 10 races of the season. Over that 10-race span, Almirola had an average finishing position of 16.1 compared to 21.5 over the first 26 races of the season. In addition, he has two top-10s, including a fourth-place finish at Martinsville that ties his career best.
After the first 10 races of 2013, the Almirola-Parrott pairing continues to produce results. Over the past four races, he's compiled a pair of eighth-place finishes to go along with a seventh and 10th. If Almirola is able to finish in the top 10 this weekend at Darlington, it will be the first time the No. 43 has posted more than four consecutive top-10 finishes since Petty rattled off a streak of seven straight top 10s in 1983.
Finishing in the top 10, however, doesn't come without its challenges.
The biggest obstacle for Almirola might be his lack of experience at the tricky track, which often finds competitors rubbing the outside wall and receiving their "Darlington Stripe." Between NASCAR's three national touring series, Almirola only has four starts.
Last year, in his only NASCAR Sprint Cup start at the South Carolina track, he finished 19th after starting 13th. In two NASCAR Nationwide starts he has finishes of 28th and 41st. Almirola did finish ninth in his only NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event at Darlington in 2010.
His lack of experience at Darlington hasn't deterred Almirola in the slightest.
"Obviously, our goal is to get another top-10 finish, but we are really eyeing Victory Lane," said Almirola. "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 its first win since 1999."
Fantasy Focus: At Darlington, the first pick has to be none other than Jeff Gordon. Although he hasn't won at the 1.366-mile track since 2007, he has seven victories there, best among active drivers. He has also led the most laps among active drivers with 1,720, 903 more than the next driver. His driver rating of 111.8 at the track is among the highest. A true dark horse to consider for your team this weekend is Denny Hamlin, who returns for his first full race after injuring his back. In seven Darlington starts, he's won once and has an average finishing position of 5.9. However, you can't count him and his resiliency out, especially after he won the spring 2010 race at Martinsville with a torn left ACL that he had surgically repaired a couple days layer.
Can Vickers return to Victory Lane at Darlington?
Brian Vickers came into the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series season amidst high expectations and title aspirations. Although they haven't found Victory Lane yet, he and his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team are poised for a run at the championship.
Vickers hopes Friday night's VFW Sports Clips Help a Hero 200 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Darlington Raceway will propel him up the standings and right in the middle of the championship battle. He currently sits eighth in the standings, 54 points behind Regan Smith.
Vickers has found success at Darlington and enjoys racing there.
"Darlington is one of my favorite tracks, if not my favorite," said the 2003 NASCAR Nationwide champion.
"It's been a quite a while since I won there, and it would be great to do it again this weekend."
In addition to his one victory there, which came in 2003, he has finishes of seventh, ninth, 10th and 12th. These strong performances, however, are offset by finishes of 37th, 37th and 43rd. These three finishes were each the result of either an accident or overheating. Every NASCAR Nationwide race he's finished at Darlington, he's placed in the top 12 and on the lead lap.
In nine NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Darlington his best finish is 10th, coming in 2010.
Vickers has finished in the top 15 in five of the past six races, including a pair of back-to-back third-place finishes at Las Vegas and Bristol. The only race in which he finished lower than 19th was at Auto Club when an engine failure relegated him to a 34th-place finish.
Vickers will need to have his "A" game to make up a lot of ground in the standings, however, he understands the unique challenges the Darlington track presents.
"With the two distinct corners, each lap can present a challenge, especially when you get into lapped traffic," said Vickers. "You have to be on your game the whole time and know the limits. And with fast speeds and tight racing, you can easily push it over the limits."
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