DARLINGTON, S.C. – There was a time when a blue No. 43 car was one of the most successful, and popular, in NASCAR.
The car was perhaps the most familiar in NASCAR. From the early 1960s through 1992 – when the blue paint scheme was trimmed in red – every stock car racing fan recognized the car immediately.
And, I might add, its driver as well.
Richard Petty, a seven-time champion, has always been associated with the No. 43 – which has become symbolic of his illustrious career.
However, after Petty retired in 1992, the glory that was the No. 43 car began to fade – badly.
The venerated Petty Enterprises organization became a shell of itself. Unlike how it was during Petty’s prime, the team went season after season without a victory.
The last time it won was with John Andretti – one of an assortment of drivers employed over the years – in 1999.
Petty Enterprises ceased to exist after the 2008 season. It was 60 years old.
But Petty the man has never gone away. And today – after many financial struggles and organizational realignments – there exists Richard Petty Motorsports.
And it fields a blue No. 43 car.
Don’t look now, but it appears that No. 43 car has shown at least a flicker of what it used to be.
In 2013 the car has become more competitive than it has in years. And its driver, Aric Almirola, can claim a share of the credit.
Coming into the Southern 500 at Darlington, Almirola and the No. 43 have posted four top-10 finishes in a row.
That hasn’t happened before in the one and one-half seasons Almirola has driven for Petty – not even close.
Presently Almirola is seventh in points. He has never been higher. Fact is, his best effort was 20th in 2012.
Fans have taken notice. And for some of the veterans who cheered Petty during his prime, perhaps there are stirs of hope that, at the very least, the No. 43 will return to respectability.
Almirola said he’s not surprised over the team’s surge in performance.
“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 (Parrott, crew chief), the guys and I are really clicking.”
Almirola, 29, has had something of a topsy-turvy NASCAR career. He broke into Sprint Cup competition in 2007 with Joe Gibbs Racing, for which he drove in six races.
In 2008, he competed in 12 races with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the next season, he entered nine races for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
He was still a part-timer in 2010. He split time with James Finch and Richard Petty Motorsports, which he joined late in the season.
Almirola did not compete on the Sprint Cup circuit in 2011. Instead he raced on a full Nationwide Series schedule with JR Motorsports.
During his fractured career from 2007-2010, Almirola earned just two top-10 finishes.
But in 2011, with JR Motorsports, he earned 18 top-10 finishes – seven in the top five – and finished a healthy fourth in Nationwide Series points.
That was enough for Richard Petty Motorsports to bring him back in 2012.
And it is paying off.
A year ago, Almirola, who has two victories on the Camping World Truck Series, finished among the top 10 four times and earned his first career Sprint Cup pole position at Charlotte in May.
It has gotten better.
In the 10 races to date in 2013, Almirola earned his consecutive top-10 runs at Texas (seventh), Kansas (ninth), Richmond (eighth) and Talladega (10th).
“We worked hard over the off-season to maintain our momentum that we had going in 2012 and it worked,” Almirola said. “We just need to keep it up and start moving to top-fives and hopefully a win soon.”
If Almirola and Richard Petty Motorsports stay hot past Darlington, it will be a noteworthy accomplishment.
The tough, old track has a way of dousing momentum and breaking hearts.
Almirola made his Darlington debut with the No. 43 last year. He started 13th and finished 19th. He has two Nationwide starts at the track and one in trucks.
“Last year, I felt like I learned a lot during the race and got into a good rhythm by the end,” Almirola said. “We had a decent finish for my first time out and only a few ‘Darlington stripes.’”
Almirola said he would rely on Parrott, a seasoned crew chief with a lot of Darlington experience, to help him have a competitive run.
“Darlington is a long race from daylight to night, so it’s really important to keep up with the track changes and make the right adjustments,” Parrott said. “Our team’s relationship is stronger than ever, which is important here.
“It will be key to have good communication from Aric about what the car is doing, so we can stay ahead of the track with changes.”
If Almirola earns yet another top-10 finish at Darlington, considered NASCAR’s toughest track, even more attention will befall the No. 43 team.
But Almirola is looking for even better things.
“Obviously, our goal is to get another top-10 finish, but we are really eyeing victory lane,” Almirola 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 its first win since 1999.”