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Marcos Ambrose Panning For Stardom in Sprint Cup

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 6 2009
Marcos Ambrose, seen here with A.J. Allmendinger in the garages at Atlanta, appears to be a driver who could strike it rich in Sprint Cup. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)  

Marcos Ambrose, seen here with A.J. Allmendinger in the garages at Atlanta, appears to be a driver who could strike it rich in Sprint Cup. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

Former Lowe’s Motor Speedway promoter H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, being the wise observer of all things NASCAR, rarely sides up with losers.

He was an early backer of a rowdy North Carolina short tracker, Dale Earnhardt, and helped steer him into a career in the series now known as Sprint Cup. Over the years, he worked with countless others, including Buddy Baker and Rusty Wallace.

So it’s worth noting that on a recent visit to Martinsville Speedway, Wheeler spent a good bit of his time in the garage stall occupied by Marcos Ambrose, the transplanted Australian now in his first full season in the Sprint Cup Series.

“Here’s a guy to watch,” Wheeler advised. “And this team is doing what they’re doing with no money compared to some of these other teams.”

That was on Friday, two days before Ambrose went out and finished a strong 14th in the Goody’s 500. Since then he’s finished fourth at Talladega and 11th last Saturday at Richmond, despite driving a wrecked car in the latter laps.

All told, Ambrose has one top-five, two top-10, five top-15 and seven top-20 this season. Even though he’s been victimized by two blown engines this year, he’s headed to this weekend’s race at Darlington 19th in the points standings, just 120 markers away from 12th place, close enough that he and his team have entertained thoughts of making the cut for the Chase.

Their stats are impressive, given that Ambrose is a relatively inexperienced driver and his team is basically a start-up outfit.

Their JTG-Daugherty team is affiliated with Michael Waltrip Racing, which gives the one-car outfit many of the benefits of a multi-car operation.

“No doubt, we are still outperforming our own expectations and that’s a good thing,” Ambrose said. “I said to my crew before we ever started the year, let’s just try our best to look good and show those glimpses of promise. Then from that, we will be able to convert, hopefully, results and get the points thing under control. The focus was about that. We just wanted to run well when we are running.”

He said there are several reasons for his improved performance of late.

“It’s a combination of experience, great cars, a great team and great teammates,” he said. “There are lots of factors why we look and feel better. I’m just thankful for an opportunity to show how far I’ve come.”

Some in the sport figured the implementation of the Car of Tomorrow would help the lesser financed teams gain ground on the power house outfits, but Ambrose said the COT “is not a factor” in his recent success.

He said NASCAR’s strict limits on testing have helped.

 “It allows us to catch up on our car builds when we’re not testing too often,” he said.

 Ambrose said none of his success this season would have been possible without the assistance he’s gotten from his crew chief Frank Kerr, the former sprint car champion from Bensalem, Pa.

 “He’s an ex-racer, and he knows what I’ve been going through,” Ambrose said. “He knows the business inside and out. I have a lot of respect for him. He saved my career here in NASCAR. We’ve got a great little group going.”

Wheeler, ever the promoter, sees Ambrose as becoming a favorite of racing’s grass roots fans. (The media might agree as well, especially after Ambrose showed up himself on race morning to pass out samples of his sponsor’s products in the media center at Atlanta Motor Speedway earlier this year.)

Wheeler points out that Ambrose’s new hobby, panning for gold, is as old as the hills in the Carolinas and Georgia in the heart of old NASCAR country.

Ambrose said he gets to pan about once a month or so. “I’m trying to get better,” he said. Lately his interests have shifted to studying the history of an old gold-laden area, and locating old mines, equipment and such.

“I’m really interested not so much in putting gold in my pocket as [the history],” he said, adding that when he is panning, it’s nothing like driving his No. 47 Toyota at speed.

“It’s a down-to-earth, simple exercise,” he said. “And I enjoy getting out to the back country.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 6 2009