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Ambrose still looking for elusive oval win

17 May 2011

When people refer to Marcos Ambrose as a "road specialist", they invariably mean it as a compliment. But that doesn't stop it irking the Australian NASCAR Sprint Cup driver just a little, every time.

That's because he wants to win on every type of race course, and to be known as a NASCAR race winner regardless of the type of circuit. While he hasn't managed to crack NASCAR's oval secrets quite yet he's coming increasingly close to doing so - as his third place at the tricky Dover International Speedway at the weekend demonstrated.

"I had a really fast car today," said Ambrose on Sunday, after driving the #9 car to third place at the Monster Mile for the Richard Petty Motorsports team, equalling his career best oval finish in the series. "My best performance for them and a career best for this program. I am really excited about the rest of the season."

Ambrose put himself among the leaders with a two-tyre call at the final pit stop, the same strategy that race winner Matt Kenseth opted for. Despite having fresher rubber than the #5 of Mark Martin - who opted not to pit at all - Ambrose didn't have the pace to take the second position from the wily old NASCAR veteran and instead had to concentrate on stopping Kyle Busch storming past him for third.

"It was a great day and a really good call for two tyres there at the end," Marcos said after the race. "I had a fast car today and we just lost a little track position. I thought I had something for 'em but the downforce went away and I wore my front tyres out."

The concrete surface seems to suit Ambrose better than the asphalt ovals, but don't dare suggest that this is because of his road racing heritage.

"I get good feel on these concrete tracks," explains the 34-year-old Australian. "When I'm having a bad day [on asphalt], I have trouble feeling each tyre. It feels like the whole car is slipping around, [whereas] on concrete, I think it's the steeper banking, there's more vertical load. I think it just helps me feel the tyres a little better."

Although the tyre call was essential to vaulting him past the likes of Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson towards the end (after the trio had dominated most of the race), it was no fluke that Ambrose was in a position to be able to take advantage of the opportunity when it arose. He'd started in 18th position (under NASCAR's new system which uses practice session times to set grid position in the event qualifying is washed out) and was into the top ten by the time the scheduled competition caution came out on lap 41, and was rarely absent from the top positions for the remainder of the 400 lap race.

The third place finish, coming on the back of a good 13th place finish at Darlington the previous week, means that for the first time this season Ambrose is starting to show some consistency week-on-week after false starts at Las Vegas (where he finished fourth) and Texas (sixth) but couldn't follow-through either time in the next race.

"We had a really good day at Darlington and it didn't quite work out because we finished 13th," agreed Ambrose. "We've just had some rough luck so far this year. We've had accidents and incidents outside of our control that have really hurt our points.

"This result [at Dover], I'm really excited because I think it's going to lead to a great Charlotte, Pocono, Indy, Kansas - all these great big tracks coming. I feel like our team is really suited to those tracks and I'm excited about it."

If Ambrose can maintain the momentum then there's a big prize on the horizon. His third place at Dover has put him up to 20th position in the Sprint Cup championship, and while he's too far behind to realistically have a chance of qualifying for the Chase on points this season, there's the small matter of a precious wild card to consider. That's a new innovation in NASCAR in which the driver with the most wins in positions 11 through 20 gets to go through into the Chase.

With two road races (Infineon Raceway at Sonoma in June, Watkins Glen in August) in store, and with Ambrose still heavily wearing the "road specialist" crown, maybe it will pay off for him in 2011 after all - victory in either race would put him into the contention for the Chase. (Whisper it gently: winning both would surely guarantee it.)

"I don't think it's necessarily the track that gives me any advantage. I think it's just road racing in general," explained Ambrose about the edge he enjoys on road courses. "Road racing, big, heavy too powerful race cars suits my style, and I've been fortunate that I've done well in road courses on NASCAR, and really set me up with a lot of confidence to know what I'm looking for in that race car.

"I really know what I'm looking for [on road courses.] We don't have to muck around with trial and error, and I pretty much engineer it from the seat because I have such a clear vision of what I need to do to get around these places well. And I guess I lacked that at some ovals and other places we go to.

"On the ovals I'm a little hit and miss. I have had occasions where I've run, qualified and run top five speed; the other weekends where I don't run that well and it's a big question mark," he continued. "Clearly I'm lacking something right now on the ovals on a consistent basis, and you know, not many road racers have been able to cross over. Some have, but not many, and I hope that I'm able to prove any critics wrong and get an opportunity here to really answer that question, not just for me, but for everyone else that watches what I do."

But while road courses - and Watkins Glen International in particular, where he won twice in the Nationwide Series - may be his best hope for snatching that Chase wild card, you suspect that Ambrose would actually trade the Chase altogether in favour of that first oval victory, to answer his own critics - the inner ones as well as the media and the fans.

"I feel like if you're going to be a NASCAR driver, you need to perform on every single track and have a chance to win at every single track."

Ambrose's impressive road racing performance goes back to the start of his motor racing career in the 1990s. After four years in Australian and British Formula Ford Championships from 1996-9, Ambrose took up with Queensland-based motor racing team Stone Brothers to complete in the V8 Supercar Championship touring car series held in Australia with overseas rounds in New Zealand, Abu Dhabi and (until this year) Bahrain. He was third in his first year and then champion in the next two seasons, but missed out winning a third consecutive title, with a controversial crash at the series' Bathurst 1000 tent pole event not helping matters.

After the season ended he announced he was heading off to try his hand in the NASCAR Truck series in 2006 with Wood Brothers/JTG Racing, where he was inevitably seen as a "road specialist" thanks to his touring and sportscar experience in Australia, a label he's never been able to shake off since. He stayed with the team when he moved up to the Nationwide Series the following year and ended up finishing the championship in eighth place, the highest of anyone not also doing double-duty competing in the senior NASCAR series.

He reinforced his "road specialist" credentials with his first series win in 2008 coming at Watkins Glen before moving to the Sprint Cup series in 2009, picking up four top-five finishes and finishing 18th in the points. Unfortunately 2010 was beset with mechanical failures, and at the end of the year Ambrose signed to move to Richard Petty Motorsports for the next season.

Richard Petty Motorsports' well-publicised financial problems and break-up with co-owner George Gillett over the winter break left Ambrose on tenterhooks as to whether he would have a seat after all, or even whether the team itself would survive: for the first time in his US career, Ambrose felt unable to take the family back home in Tasmania for their traditional Christmas with a barbie on the beach. "This year I'm not going back to Australia," said Ambrose toward the end of 2010. "It's all getting pretty hot and heavy [with RPM], so I've got to stay here and really get ready for 2011.

"We're looking forward to it," he said at the time, showing that typical Aussie tendency of looking on the bright side even in high adversity. "We'll have a white Christmas instead of a hot one. We're getting more assimilated with the USA every year and we're looking forward to staying around."

Even so, Ambrose needed to start looking around for options in case his NASCAR career suddenly blew up, and at one point was considering returning home to Australian motorsports. "I spoke to a few people down there, and all have been well received," he said. "But my heart is in NASCAR to be honest with you. I've got unfinished business at this level of racing. I feel like I've become part of the sport but I haven't become a contender on a weekly basis, and I feel like I'm really - if I left now, I would feel like I've got unfinished business.

"I would like to stay here in America if I could ... I would love to stay in NASCAR and finish off what I started."

Fortunately RPM pulled out of its nose dive when Richard Petty took back control of the team bearing his name, and Ambrose not only kept his seat but found himself with a leaner, meaner, more driven team backing him.

"It was one of those moments I reflect on and think about a lot, because it went through my head a lot," said Ambrose of those dark days at the end of 2010. "I was thinking, 'Is this it? Is this as far as I go? Is this the end of the road?'

"But that moment passed very quickly because Richard Petty took the leadership to drive this company, to save it, to restructure it, to rebuild it to what it is today.

"I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders," he continued. "I feel the pressure of wanting to perform for Richard and the whole RPM team and everyone else who stands behind this company, but now it's a good pressure. It's been an incredible story and Richard is an amazing person. I don't think anyone else could have saved this company."

Now the company is on a more secure footing off-track, Ambrose can focus on working with them to improve their on-track fortunes too. "Our team is learning me, I'm learning them," he said. "I'm learning how these cars work."

Back when things looked less certain, Ambrose spoke about how "I feel lucky that I've been in NASCAR and I've got to experience first-hand being at the top level. Not saying that I don't want to stay around and do more of it, but I feel lucky to have even got this far."

Having got his second chance with RPM, he's determined to make the most of the renewed opportunity - and in the Tasmanian's mind, that means wins. And winning on an oval, sooner rather than later.


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