CONCORD, N.C. -- Aric Almirola was 14 years old at the time, and by his recollection probably competing in go-karts. But growing up in a racing family, he was already well-versed in NASCAR -- Saturday nights meant the local short track, Sunday afternoons meant the big boys on TV. So he may very well have watched as John Andretti spun, lost a lap, and then recovered to drive the No. 43 car to victory in the spring of 1999.
"I'm sure I did," Almirola said. "I can't tell you I can remember it, but I'm certain I did. There were very few Sundays that we didn't watch the NASCAR races."
In a way, it would have been poetic had Almirola been watching on that April day 14 years ago, as Andretti recorded what remains the most recent victory by one of the most famous car numbers in NASCAR. That race at Martinsville marked the 198th win by the No. 43 that Richard Petty made famous, and now it's up to Almirola to try and snap a winless streak in the vehicle that stretches back more than a decade.
As recently as a year ago, that might have seemed a dubious prospect, given that the 29-year-old Tampa native hasn't often been a fixture at the front of the field since moving up to the Sprint Cup Series. But a promising start to this season -- one that included four consecutive top-10s from Texas to Talladega, and a current ninth-place standing in points -- has given Almirola and his Richard Petty Motorsports team hope that a breakthrough is on the horizon.
"A year ago, I would have told you no way. A year ago I would have been like, if you want the honest answer, the answer is no," he said. "Sitting right here today, I can tell you that I really believe that if we continue to run how we've been running ? we can capitalize on one of those weekends where we have a shot to make that happen."
Throughout most of its illustrious history, winning has not been a problem for the No. 43 car. Petty enjoyed stretches of absolute dominance in the vehicle, driving it to all seven of his premier-series championships and all but eight of his record 200 race victories. The vehicle has won as an Oldsmobile, a Plymouth, a Ford, a Dodge, a Chevrolet, a Buick and a Pontiac, and gone to Victory Lane with five different drivers behind the wheel -- Lee Petty, Richard Petty, Jim Paschal, Bobby Hamilton, and most recently Andretti.
That most recent victory 14 years ago was an unlikely one. Andretti spun and lost a lap after early contact with Ward Burton, but got back on the leap lap -- this in the era before the free pass, when drivers had to do it the hard way -- and passed Jeff Burton with four circuits remaining to win. It was a big weekend all around for the team then known as Petty Enterprises, which won the Truck Series race the day before with Jimmy Hensley, and also had Kyle Petty score a top-10 finish in the Cup event.
"That was one of our bigger weekends in Martinsville, that's for sure," Richard Petty remembered.
It's been a very long time since then, long enough to allow the No. 11 car -- thanks in part to the recent success of Denny Hamlin -- to surpass the No. 43 for the most victories by a car number in NASCAR history. It didn't help that the Petty team endured years of turbulence, beginning with a relocation to metro Charlotte from its ancestral home in Level Cross, N.C., then a merger with the former Gillett Evernham team, then nearly going bankrupt before restructuring under its current name in 2009. That upheaval took a competitive toll, one the storied franchise has only recently begun to shake free of.
For his part, the King is always looking ahead. "I don't know that they're even looking at, when's the last (victory). They're looking at, when's the next one," Petty said. But clearly, the winless streak weights on a program that was once the unquestioned best in the sport.
"I think it does. It certainly does," Almirola said. "The 43 car is the most iconic car in our sport's history, hands down. So that being said, people want to see it in Victory Lane, including myself. Even if I wasn't driving the 43, even if I was just a fan, or even if I was driving somebody else's car, or even before I was driving the 43, I think it would be awesome to see that 43 car get to Victory Lane. Obviously, for selfish reasons, I want to win. But then, he added bonus to that would be to get the King and his big cowboy hat back to Victory Lane, and that would be really special to do that with the 43 car."
A pole position for last year's Coca-Cola 600 was a big step. This season under crew chief Todd Parrott, Almirola and the No. 43 have taken even greater strides -- the team's four consecutive top-10s prior to Darlington marked the first time the No. 43 car has enjoyed such a run since Bobby Hamilton did the same thing between Richmond and North Wilkesboro way back in 1996. But winning is something else altogether, and a much more challenging prospect given that Almirola has led just one lap this season coming to Charlotte.
"It's not a secret that our sport is extremely tough and competitive. You look at all of the guys in our series, and I think the same guys lead the laps most of the time. For us -- and this is just being real -- for us to win a race, we've got to be able to steal one," Almirola said. "I don't think on a regular basis that we're on the level right now to where we can show up at the race track and lead 20, 30 percent of the race. That's just the reality of it. Can we get to that level? Sure. But we're not there yet."
Almirola's best, most recent opportunity might have been last fall at Kansas, where he led 69 laps before blowing a tire and finishing 29th. "One of the best race cars I've ever had in my life," he called it. Days like that are the benchmark for a program that's clearly improved, but still trying to take the next step.
"We have that capability of being a consistent, top-10 car," said Almirola, who finished 16th last spring at Charlotte after winning the pole. "We currently are not going to be a car that shows up and the track and leads. We're not going to be a Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Busch or Matt Kenseth or those guys at this moment. But I certainly feel like if we run a good race, and we're in the top 10, in the top five, when it comes down to 50 to go, I wouldn't bet against our race team."
The King certainly likes the progress, given that a year ago Almirola was 19th in points. "We haven't won yet. But we're right on the verge," Petty said. "But if we can continue to improve like we have this year over last year, then we're looking forward to it."
RPM's other driver, Marcos Ambrose, has won on the road course at Watkins Glen in each of the past two seasons. The No. 43, though, still waits to snap that 14-year drought. Almirola allows himself to envision what it might be like, standing in Victory Lane with the King. He's even thought about what he might do to celebrate the occasion -- but that will have to wait until if and when the dream becomes reality.
"I can't tell you," he said. "I'm going to make that a surprise."
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