Let's see. He's with one of the winningest crew chiefs in NASCAR today. And he's in one of the winningest car numbers of all-time.

So, no, it isn't a huge surprise that three races into the Sprint Cup Series season Aric Almirola is positioned inside the contenders for this year's Chase for the championship.

A pleasant surprise, but not a shocking one.

"We feel extremely fortunate to have had a number of very talented drivers interested in joining our organization, but ultimately we felt Aric would be the best fit for the team and for our current and potential partners," said Richard Petty after signing Almirola last year to drive his legendary No. 43. "We are really confident in his potential as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver. We think Aric has all the makings to be the next bright star in our sport." 


Well, that's happening right now. Almirola is off to the best start of his, albeit brief, career in NASCAR's premier division. He's finished on the lead lap in all three races, so far, finishing 13th at Daytona, 15th and Phoenix and 16th last week at Las Vegas. More impressive is the fact that he's been able to do it at three very different tracks. The next test will be Sunday at Bristol, the first half-mile circuit on the schedule.

Almirola's burst onto the scene isn't as sudden as it may seem. A lot of his success can be dated back to last season when Todd Parrot took over as crew chief for the final 10 races of the season. Parrot's impact at the helm was felt immediately as Almirola picked up his only top-five during that stretch.

"We have just really clicked, and our chemistry has been really strong," said Almirola of Parrot, the third-winningest crew chief in Sprint Cup today. "We have fast race cars every week, and right from the very get go, he's understood me and I've understood him, and we just know how to get our cars where we want them throughout the weekend for the race."

Maybe the surprise doesn't lie on Almirola, but the fact that he's having the success he's having under the Richard Petty Motorsports umbrella. RPM hasn't made the Chase since 2008 (then under the Gillett Evernham Motorsports moniker). And while times have been tough at RPM since the brands merged with Petty Enterprises in 2009, the new Gen-6 appears to have leveled the playing field, at least a little bit, so far in 2013.

"I feel like we are a competitive race team and I feel like we can compete with these other teams," Almirola said. "You know, I'm really proud of what we've been able to do, with this 43 team with Todd Parrott and the guys that we have on our crew. They bring me fast cars to the racetrack, and they do a lot with probably a lot less than some of the other teams that we're competing against."

Now, the next step is to find a way into Victory Lane. That would be some feat this weekend as the last time the No. 43 took the checkers at Bristol was 1975. The driver? Richard Petty.

"At the beginning of the year, we sat down and made a list of goals, and that is No. 1 on our list," Almirola said. "Put that 43 car back in Victory Lane."