DARLINGTON, S.C. — It has been 30 years since the No. 43 car has run this well.
Tampa's Aric Almirola goes into tonight's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway with four consecutive top-10 finishes. Should he earn another, it would be the most for the famed Richard Petty-owned car since Petty had seven in a row in 1983.
"We sure are on a roll lately," said Almirola, who began his streak with a seventh-place finish last month at Texas. He then was eighth at Kansas and Richmond, and 10th at Talladega.
Now Almirola is a surprising eighth in Sprint Cup points.
Almirola said he and crew chief Todd Parrott have seen this surge coming since 2012, when Almirola closed with finishes of 16th or better in each of the final four races including two top-10 runs.
"I think we are the only people that aren't surprised," Almirola said this week. "Todd, the guys and I are really clicking. We worked hard over the offseason 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."
Almirola, who starts 18th tonight, was 19th last year at Darlington in his first visit to the track with RPM. He said NASCAR's oldest superspeedway is one of the toughest he has raced.
"Last year, I felt like I learned a lot during the race and got into a good rhythm by the end," he said. "We had a decent finish for my first time out and only a few 'Darlington stripes.' "
Qualifying: Kurt Busch set the qualifying record to earn the pole for tonight's race with a lap of 181.918 mph Friday. Busch earned his third Darlington pole and broke the mark of 181.254 set by Kasey Kahne in 2011.
Jimmie Johnson (180.974 mph) starts second and Busch's brother Kyle (180.92) lines up third.
Danica Patrick hit the wall in practice and starts 40th in a backup.
Anniversary: Each time Kurt Busch retells the story of one of NASCAR's most scintillating finishes, he gets a little closer to winning. But the record book does not lie.
It has been 10 years since Busch and Ricky Craven had their famous, record-setting finish at Darlington.
The two went fender to fender on March 16, 2003, at "The Lady in Black" before Craven won by 0.002 seconds. It was Sprint Cup's closest margin after the inception of electronic scoring in 1993 (since tied at Talladega Superspeedway in 2011).
"We put on a battle for those last five to 10 laps, and it was an epic feeling when we were doing it," Busch said. "No matter if we won or lost, it was a show that will last in the fans' mind for a lifetime."
The win was the second and last in Sprint Cup for Craven, 46, now an ESPN analyst.
"When I won, it was really all about winning at Darlington," said Craven, 46. "But the race has become much bigger to me than just the trophy. It wasn't about me on that day, it wasn't about being a fan of mine, it wasn't necessarily about being a fan of Kurt, it was really about being a fan of racing, because since I've retired, it seems as though it's all that anybody wants to talk about when I cross paths with them."