DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The hottest driver heading into Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway isn't Jimmie Johnson or Brad Keselowski or even Matt Kenseth. It is Aric Almirola.
Almirola, in his second season with Richard Petty Motorsports, will be seeking his fifth straight top-10 finish at Darlington.
He has climbed from 16th to eighth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings and is now a major player in the chase to determine the 12 drivers that will make up this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
"We're not as surprised as everybody else is," Almirola said. "We feel like at the end of last year we were running really strong (after two top-10 finishes in the last four races) and we were a little disappointed at Homestead (where he finished seventh) because we didn't want the season to end because we were running so well. The beginning of this season has kind of picked up where we left off last year and I'm proud of that."
Almirola's biggest goal now is "to get that 43 car back in victory lane. I want that bad. It's been 13 or 14 years since it's been to victory lane and I'd like nothing more than to be the guy to get that done and get the 43 (and Petty) back to victory lane."
HAMLIN GLAD TO BE BACK
While Almirola is enjoying his "new-found" fame, Denny Hamlin is just glad to be a full-time driver again.
Hamlin, who missed four races because of a compressed fracture in his back, plans on going the distance in the 500-miler at Darlington.
"I don't think there's any doubt we'll go the whole day," Hamlin said after practice on Friday. "I'm pretty comfortable I can make it the three or three-and-a-half hours that it's going to take to run the race."
Hamlin, who has been part of the Championship Chase for five straight years and almost won the championship in 2010, knows the odds are against him in his bid to make it six in a row. He stands 31st in the standings as the series headed to Darlington.
But he is ready for the challenge.
"I love the fact that it's going to be all on my shoulders to make the run towards the Chase," Hamlin said. "But there's nothing that wins can't fix. That's the bottom line. If we put ourselves in position and win a race here and there, more than likely if we win a couple of races then we're going to be in the top-20 in points and be a wild card."
GORDON LOOKS TO GET IN CHASE
The top 10 in the point standings after 26 races make the Chase. The final two "wild card" spots go to the two drivers with the most wins who rank between 11th and 20th in the standings.
Hamlin has 16 races to accomplish his mission.
Jeff Gordon is another driver who needs a win or two to make the Chase. And he is at one of his favorite tracks this weekend in his quest to get back to victory lane.
Gordon, who is making his 700th career start Saturday night, has won seven times at Darlington.
KENSETH, JGR WIN APPEAL
Kenseth, who has already won twice this season and is almost a lock to make the Chase, is all smiles for another reason -- he and car owner Joe Gibbs "won" their appeal of the penalties assessed by NASCAR after one of the team's eight connecting rods on their engine was light in the postrace inspection after Kenseth's win at Kansas.
A three-member panel voted unanimously Wednesday to reduce the 50-point penalty to 12 and Kenseth was given credit for the Kansas win and will receive the three-point bonus for the win if he makes the Chase.
"I still feel bad we were in that spot to start with to even have a penalty, but I think these penalties are way more in line with what I initially thought that it would be," Kenseth said.
TRD (Toyota Racing Development) provides the engines for all of Joe Gibbs Racing cars and they admitted they were the ones at fault. But NASCAR held the team responsible for the infraction.
Kenseth said, "I was pleasantly surprised it was reduced that much. I had a pretty good feeling, but I didn't know if we would've got that kind of reduction."
As a result, Kenseth jumped from 11th to fourth in the standings.