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Aussie Ambrose Is A Triple Threat At Watkins Glen

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 12 2013

Marcos Ambrose, who will start from the pole on Sunday, and Richard Petty have a good thing going at Watkins Glen. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

His tenure Down Under has served Marcos Ambrose particularly well in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State, where a bit of NASCAR history beckons the native Australian at Watkins Glen International.

Ambrose is working on a two-race Sprint Cup Series winning streak heading into Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at The Glen. Victory in the 220.5-mile/90-lap event – which Ambrose will start from the pole – would tie Ambrose with Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon as the only Cup drivers to have won three consecutive races on the 2.45-mile “short course.”

“If you’ve played poker, the chances of continuing to win get slimmer as you win, so I think it’s gonna be a really hard weekend for us,” Ambrose said during a news conference on another rainy Friday morning at WGI. “I don’t anticipate domination. I know we’re going to be a contender. I know we’re gonna be up there in the mix, but there is certainly no guarantee of success here and we have to make sure we get going and get on the front foot and hopefully have a car that’s close. I feel like I’m a little behind coming into this weekend, especially with the inclement weather. We’ll just have to wait-and-see how it works out.”

Ambrose noted that he and his Richard Petty Motorsports team did not test the Gen-6 version of their No. 9 Stanley/CTC Jumpstart Ford Fusion at WGI.

“I know a lot of teams have (tested), so I’m a little cautious here, especially with the weather,” said Ambrose, anticipating Saturday’s qualifying session. “We may not get as much track time as what we wanted to, so we’re gonna have to be on our toes early-on to try to get the car dialed-in and get a feel on this new machine.

“The new Gen-6 car we anticipate will be fast around here. It’s got more downforce and that should help us, especially through (Turns) 2, 3 and 4 and it will probably help us everywhere, but particularly up the hill (the signature Esses) where there is normally a lot of speed when the car is dialed-in. So I think you’re going to see fast speeds and we’re

Marcos Ambrose has built a comfortable little place for himself in western New York. (RacinToday/HHP file photo)

certainly going to have to have a different setup on the car than what we had last year. We’ll just have to make sure that our assumptions and our guesswork is right and hopefully it is and we can get focused on qualifying and qualify near the front to control the race.”

Ambrose, who will be making his sixth Cup start at WGI, added that one major obstacle to his winning streak already has been eliminated.

“I don’t know much about what’s going to happen, but I do know that I’ve got Tony Stewart covered. I don’t think he’ll be a challenge this weekend,” said Ambrose, a reference to the Sprint Car wreck on Monday that left Stewart with a broken leg. A three-time NASCAR champion and WGI’s all-time leader in Cup victories with five, Stewart will remain sidelined for an indefinite period.

Still, Ambrose will have to contend with four-time Cup champion and WGI winner Jeff Gordon, whose nine overall victories on road-courses – including five at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway – remain the Cup standard.

Martin first accomplished the WGI three-peat in 1995 while driving Fords for team-owner Jack Roush. Gordon matched Martin’s record four years later, winning his third straight race at The Glen in 1999 in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. The only other multiple Cup winners at WGI are Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace with two each.

Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing is the most recent Cup driver to win three consecutive races at the same track. Hamlin accomplished the feat in 2009 and 2010 at the half-mile Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

For the record, Ambrose already has put together a three-race win streak at The Glen in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series. Ambrose posted back-to-back-to-back victories from 2008-10 while driving for JTG/Daugherty Racing.

Curiously, both of Ambrose’s wins at The Glen have involved Brad Keselowski, the reigning Cup champion from Penske Racing.

In 2011, Ambrose passed Keselowski with two laps to go and the pair continued to battle over the final circuits. On the final lap, the yellow flag came out when David Ragan got loose, hit the inside wall and then rebounded across the track, slamming David Reutimann into the outside wall. When the yellow was displayed _ effectively ending the race _ Ambrose held a two car-length lead over Keselowski.

It was the first Cup win for Ambrose, a two-time Australian V8 Supercars Series champion who moved to the United States for the 2006 racing season and graduated to the Cup Series fulltime in 2009.

Last year’s WGI finish was more dramatic, as it involved Kyle Busch, Keselowski and Ambrose. Busch began the final lap with a slight lead over Keselowski and Ambrose. Midway through the lap, Busch spun out on an oily patch, allowing Keselowski to grab the lead with Ambrose in pursuit. Ambrose passed “Bad Brad” heading to the final turn to cap a fender-banging duel and win by 0.571-seconds.

“It’s obviously been very topical this week,” said Ambrose, alluding to that last lap. “We’ve done a lot of media around that last lap and, to be honest with you, until I really got to this week I hadn’t even watched a replay. The race was

Marcos Ambrose can make it three in a row at The Glen on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

awesome and it was an incredible moment. I was there. I was behind the wheel. It was a great feeling to win that race against Brad and Kyle. If the circumstances had fallen the same way again, I may not have won it. It was quite a lucky break for me to get that win; I’ll take it and I enjoyed it but I haven’t thought anything about it since.

“There’s obviously been a lot of talk about it this week and we’ve done some media around that last lap, so I guess it’s been pushed back in front of my mind. But to be honest with you, I look at that race and I wish I had won it by eight seconds and not by one car-length at the end because that’s when you can dominate a race and feel like you’ve done the best job. So, for me, it was a great day. It was a great day for our team and it will go down in my racing history as one of my all-time favorite moments, but it’s in the past. As race car drivers we always look forward and this weekend will be no guarantee, so I’m just really focused on this weekend and trying to do a good job for my team.”

Given his background in the ultra-aggressive, all-road-course V8 Supercars Series, Ambrose acknowledged he naturally is more confident turning left-and-right.

“The V8 Supercars are fantastic,” said Ambrose, who drove Ford Falcon sedans to his dual championships. “I learned a lot and did a lot of winning down there, but I’m here for a reason. NASCAR is the biggest form of racing and that’s why I love coming and competing in NASCAR at the Sprint Cup level.

“And it’s a question we talk about a lot – that I can come to a road-course and generally run top-10 every time we come, yet we go to ovals and we’re more hit-and-miss. The only way I can actually square that away in my mind is that when you go oval racing the setups of the cars are obviously very, very important. When you go road racing, it’s more about just getting the car even and not doing anything crazy.

“For me, I know when the car is sort of not feeling right that I can get it close, and then I’ll just do the rest. When I go oval racing, the cars are so twisted and contorted with their setups that if you miss it by a half-pound of tire pressure or 20 pounds of spring rate – or something like that – you can have a terrible day. For me, when you go road racing it’s not so much about setting the car up to the very edge, it’s more about just making it easy to drive and then I’ll do the rest. So I guess that gives me some confidence because I’ve been to these tracks several times and run well. I know what I need to feel and so I’m able to get there quickly, probably quicker than most.”

That said, Ambrose admitted NASCAR’s annual two road-course visits actually ratchet-up the pressure on him to qualify and run up-front. Ironically, crew chief Drew Blickensderfer said it’s the opposite for him.

“This is a track where Marcos makes it very easy on me,” said Blickensderfer, who assumed crew chief duties for Ambrose before Round 8 of last year’s 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup at Texas Motor Speedway. “He knows what he wants in the car all the way down to the steering wheel and shifter ball. It’s just a matter of listening and making the changes Marcos wants. It’s really fun to work a road-course with him. You learn so much. He just doesn’t care what others are doing. He really is the leader in the Cup garage when it comes to setting up a car here.

“I feel that this is a weekend that can really turn everything around for us. We can climb into the top-20 in points and be there for a Wild Card berth. This team has been in that position the last two years, and hopefully, we can be in position again. Then we can go for more wins and hopefully make the Chase.”

Realistically, NASCAR’s season-ending playoffs again loom as a long shot for Ambrose, who qualified eighth and finished 12th on Pocono Raceway’s 2.5-mile oval last weekend.

“It was a decent day, but not the day we wanted. Still, we were in the middle of the race,” said Ambrose, whose average finish at WGI is second during his five previous starts and has a lowest finish of third. “I come here and all of a sudden it’s like you’re expected to win, so, for me, it’s actually opposite. This weekend is actually more of a stress-out than last week and that’s hard to sometimes balance-out the weight of expectation from our team. The sponsors know it should be a good weekend and the team expects a good weekend and you guys (media) do and the fans do, so, all of a sudden, if you don’t perform on those days it adds even more pressure to what you do every other week.

“So, I like these weekends. It’s great to contend but it’s only one race out of a whole season. I keep striving with our team to get better every week on the ovals and, hopefully, coming up here you’re going to be talking about me on other weekends and not just road-course races.”

A win Sunday would put Ambrose in contention for a Wild Card berth in the Chase. Ambrose currently is 22nd in the standings, five points behind Jeff Burton of Richard Childress Racing. Through 21 races, Ambrose has posted only two top-10 finishes – seventh after starting second at Sonoma and eighth at Martinsville.

In order to be eligible to claim one of two Wild Card spots, Ambrose would need to break into the top-20 in points and score at least one win, if not two. In addition, he would have to pass three drivers – Stewart, Sonoma winner Martin Truex Jr. of Michael Waltrip Racing and Brickyard 400 champion Ryan Newman of Stewart-Haas Racing – currently ranked between 11th and 20th in the standings with one win.

Considering there are only five races remaining before the Chase field is set at Richmond International Raceway, Ambrose theoretically also would have to add the first Cup oval-track victory to his stats.

“From our perspective we’ve had a rough year outside the top-20 in points,” said Ambrose, addressing the aggression factor he’ll need to make the Chase. “So we’re close to getting inside the top-20 and we want a really strong weekend to give ourselves a chance to get back in there and then anything can happen. You’ve got to put yourself on a macro view first and look at the whole year and what we need to do to have a stronger run home.

“The aggression side of it – everybody says that I’m aggressive, but actually I don’t feel that way on a road -course. I actually feel like I’m more controlled around these places. Obviously, to pass cars you have to have strong technique and you need to be aggressive to get past that aero-push or the aero imbalance that you get when you’re trying to make things happen and wearing out tires and brakes and things like that.

“But generally, when I’m doing a lap I don’t feel like I’m actually being too aggressive. I actually tell myself the opposite – to calm down and just try to be smooth.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 12 2013
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