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Monday Morning Crew Chief: Ambrose King of The Road?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 31 2009
Marcos Ambrose led Carl Edwards until a final-turn misstep relegated him to a second-place finish. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images)

Marcos Ambrose led Carl Edwards until a final-turn misstep relegated him to a second-place finish. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images)

By Jonthan Ingram | Senior Writer

There are those who might have questioned Marcos Ambrose’s intelligence when he left his native Tasmania and Australia behind to pursue a career in the Sprint Cup after two V8 Supercar championships and a near miss of three straight.

But since a stellar performance at Bristol where he finished third in the Sprint Cup two weeks after a runner-up finish at Watkins Glen, the question has turned around. Can the remarkable driver continue to be a contender on ovals when he climbs into a Sprint Cup COT?

It’s clear Ambrose is a contender on any road course, despite overcooking the final corner on the last lap in Montreal’s Nationwide Series race and allowing Carl Edwards to squeeze through to victory.

With a variety of teams, including his current digs at JTG/Daugherty Racing, Ambrose has consistently carried a car farther than most thought was possible on ovals. Will he eventually surprise people with victories on the circle tracks?

Nicknamed “Devil Racer” after his native Tasmania, Ambrose is reminiscent of Alex Zanardi, one of the all-time great late brakers. Throughout his two-time championship CART career, Zanardi raised hackles with passing maneuvers in the corners that caught his fellow drivers by surprise – although they were clean moves.

When he went back to Formula 1, Zanardi’s puzzling downfall at Williams Grand Prix Engineering resulted in no small part from the change in braking technology and the difficulty of making the transition from the iron brakes in CART back to the carbon brakes that had been highly developed during his absence from F1.

Whatever the debate on fuel injection, NASCAR, it’s safe to say, will stick with iron brakes. Ambrose will get ample chance to bounce back from bouncing over the curbs at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and losing to Edwards. But its ovals that are the ultimate test.

Carrying more speed into the corners is often the chosen technique of former road racers who convert to stock cars and ovals. Some of these types, however, never learn how to adjust to the weight of a stock car or its lack of downforce. They’re either too slow, too reckless or burn up the brakes on the ovals.

Perhaps Ambrose does well at Bristol, where he finished 10th in the spring in his first COT visit to the bullring, because there’s so many high speed braking opportunities over the course of 500 laps. But don’t ask him how he does it. He’s hardly dull enough to answer in any detail.

“Nobody,” says Edwards, “can outbrake him.” At Montreal, Edwards did the next best thing by “helping” Ambrose go a little too deep into the final corner before the front straight, which bounced the man from Down Under onto the curbs and into a third straight near miss in Quebec. Nobody maintains an edge in NASCAR without somebody – such as Edwards – coming up with a strategy to counter it.

“Carl got position on me, and I had to try to make sure I (outbraked) him,” said Ambrose. “I feel pretty devastated, because I let my boys down. We came here to win, and anything less than that was a disappointment.”

On Saturday, of course, it was Edwards who hit humble pie and the wall when he lost control of his Dallara chassis on the parade lap of the Grand-Am race in the rain. Ambrose thus lost his co-drive in the Dallara of Doran Enterprises and once again suffered what now seems to be devilish luck in Canada.

Ambrose grew up just across the Tasman Sea from Bob Jayne’s Thunderdome at Calder Park near Melbourne, where NASCAR’s Sprint Cup teams raced annually in exhibitions for three years, starting in 1988. But stock cars initially failed to catch his eye and he chose the traditional Australian route of road racing. He went to Europe in search of a ride in F1, climbing the ladder from the open cockpit of a spindly Formula Ford.

Despite winning the European Formula Ford championship in 1999 and out-qualifying future F1 drivers like Kimi Raikkonen and Jensen Button, Ambrose did not have the sponsorship needed to advance and returned home to claim fame and fortune in Australian V8 Supercars aboard a Ford Falcon. He didn’t wait around to clinch a victory at the 1,000-mile Bathurst race that runs up and down Mt. Panorama, the V8 series’ version of the Daytona 500. He made the switch to the U.S. with Ford backing while still a young legend in the making, starting with trucks and then the Nationwide ranks and now in COT’s.

Whether he would have ever achieved the status of Peter Brock – the Richard Petty of Australia – is hard to say. You have to win at Mt. Panorama regularly to do that. But unlike Dick Johnson, another folk hero Down Under who arrived in NASCAR at the end of a career built on winning at Bathurst, Ambrose decided not to wait for a shot at NASCAR gold.

As a hobby in between races, Ambrose now pans for gold in the streams in the mountains near Charlotte, which has become a diversion for more than a few in the Carolina hills. It is with the same sort of persistence that he has created nuggets of success in NASCAR. Smooth, fast, always upbeat, Ambrose may yet sustain the idea that a driver can start on the lower rungs and work his way up on sheer energy and talent.

He may even one day qualify as a good ol’ star. After all, the only place farther south than Tasmania is Antarctica.

* Q&A

We caught up with former Dyson Racing driver James Weaver at Mosport. Smiling and clearly happy, the quick-witted Brit clinched his 100th career victory at the very fast Ontario track on board a Dyson Lola in 2005. He retired in 2006 shortly before the Dyson team switched from a Lola to a Porsche chassis for the 2007 season.

RacinToday: How are you enjoying the life of a retired race car driver?

Weaver: “It’s a lot better than working, but not as good as racing. So anybody who’s thinking of giving up racing — don’t!”

RacinToday: Are you a regular at the local pub back in England where you take your racing friends from America when they visit?

Weaver: Yes. In fact that’s the reason I’m over here. Butch (Leitzinger) said he was going for a curry in Toronto. When Butch, Andy (Wallace) and I were together, the boys’ rules were that if you said you were going for a beer or going for Mexican or whatever, (the others) weren’t allowed to pike out. So I had to say to Butch, ‘OK mate, see you there.'”

RacinToday: Dyson Racing is going pretty good with the Lola-Mazda. Given your success with Dyson in a Lola, do you do any consulting work with the team?

Weaver: “I speak with them by phone, the engineers and (team owner) Rob (Dyson). I’m here this weekend chatting with the engineers and it’s really enjoyable. It’s more of a hindrance to them than a help.”

RacinToday: Does this rainy, cloudy weather of Mosport remind you of being home?

Weaver: “It’s amazing to come halfway around the world and it’s just like Snetterton.”

* This Just In

If Chicagoland Camping World Truck Series winner Kyle Busch sustains his current pace, which has brought him 56 victories already in NASCAR’s three major traveling series, would a total of 200 career victories rank him with Richard Petty? …For those who believe the Sprint Cup has lost its edge, consider this past weekend, one of the few off weekends on the schedule. Every other major racing series in North America was active, plus the MotoGP in Indianapolis. They were all trying to take advantage of the absence of the 500-pound gorilla.

Porsche is apparently bidding farewell to its active involvement with the Daytona Prototypes. The German engineers have concluded the 4.0-liter flat six Porsche engine can’t cut it against the V-8’s of Lexus, Ford and GM due to torque differences. Informed sources say Brumos Racing, where Grand-Am co-founder Jim France’s son J.C. is one of the drivers, will continue with a V-8 Porsche adapted from the Cayenne SUV and privately built by the Lozano Brothers, longtime engine experts based in San Antonio. …Where Penske Racing is headed without major factory support from Porsche in the Grand-Am remains to be seen, as does the concept of a hybrid Porsche prototype at Le Mans in 2011.

See ya…at the races.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 31 2009
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