Just about every year there seems to be one or two drivers who sneak up and in surprising fashion, snag a Chase berth.
Last year it was the Michael Waltrip Racing duo of Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. While both drivers had made the Chase previously, this was deemed a surprise not only because MWR never came close to having one of its drivers qualify for the playoffs before, but because Bowyer was joining a brand-new team while Truex was coming off a 2011 season where he finished 18th in points.
The season before that, it was Brad Keselowski, who unexpectedly won three races when few thought he would and claimed his first spot in the Chase.
Through three races in 2013 and sitting 10th overall, Aric Almirola is one such driver who is making a case why he might be this year's surprise Chase entrant. And while that may be a far-fetched notion to some, it isn't to the driver of the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Ford.
"I feel like we are right on the cusp of that," Almirola said. "I feel like it would be crazy for us to think that as new as we are and the reality is that we don't have the same amount of resources as some of the other teams -- it would be crazy for us to think that we are a championship team at this moment.
"But I do feel like we are on the cusp of being a consistent top-10 team."
Although Almirola has yet to score a top 10, he has been consistent with finishes of 13th, 15th and 16th to start the year. And all this comes after a strong close to 2012 where Almirola collected two top 10s and had an average finish of 10.5 over the final four races.
This was dramatically different from how he started the season, as he had six finishes of 24th or worse in the year's first nine races.
"I made a few mistakes last year at the beginning of the year and we dug ourselves a hole in the points and we never recovered from it really," Almirola said.
One year later and now in his second full year racing in the Sprint Cup Series, Almirola now recognizes that one of the keys to having a good season is not putting yourself in a hole early on. Not coincidentally, he is 13 spots higher in the standings than he was a year ago at this point.
"The big thing for me was the first few weeks of this year to not make any major mistakes," he said. "I wanted to go out and have solid days, don't get caught speeding on pit road, keep our track position all day and just race smart, and put ourselves in position to where here in the next few weeks, we can go compete and be a legitimate threat for trying to make the Chase."
One big reason why the No. 43 is on the upswing is the addition of crew chief Todd Parrott, who joined the team last year with 10 races left in the season, moving over from RPM's other car driven by Marcos Ambrose.
While Parrott may be considered an old-school crew chief in an era dominated by crew guys with engineering degrees, it hasn't prevented him from adapting. And it's Parrott's leadership that Almirola feels is the reason the 43 team is now in the position it finds itself in.
"Todd is probably one of the most detail-oriented crew chiefs that I've ever met," Almirola said. "He gets his guys to rally around him and pay attention and focus on the details."
Add everything together and the recipe for Almirola to make the Chase seems to be there.
"Right now, I know we are only three weeks into it, but myself and everybody on our race team feels like that's a possibility," he said.
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