With his reputation as one of the best, hardest and fastest road course racers currently plying his trade in NASCAR, it was always a bit of a mystery why Marcos Ambrose hadn't managed to clinch victory before now on the 2.71-mile, 14-turn Circuit Gilles Villeneuve road course well known to F1 fans.
He's had four attempts at claiming victory here, and over the years been completely dominant - leading 149 of the 276 laps he had run in Montreal. And yet when it came down to the chequered flag, a combination of mistakes, mechanical woes and plain bad luck had snatched it away from him.
That might explain why he so eagerly signed up for the breakneck travel plans that saw him fly up from Michigan with Carl Edwards and Trevor Bayne to arrive at the track just 20 minutes prior to the scheduled start of the race, meaning that all three had to start from the back of the grid at the green flag. It also meant that none of them had had a chance to run a single lap on the track prior to the start, Owen Kelly having qualified the #009 for Ambrose, Billy Johnson car-sitting the #60 for Edwards and Michel Jourdain Jr. looking after the #16 for Bayne.
The race started with a small piece of history - the first all-Canadian front-row in Nationwide Series history, as Penske team mates for the day Jacques Villeneuve and Alex Tagliani led the way to the green flag. Villeneuve quickly stretched out a decent lead, but the order of the day at the start was early pit stops as cars topped off their gas as early as lap 2 as soon as it was viable to make the remainder of the race distance on only two further pit stops. The weather was also a consideration, with reports of storms in the vicinity.
Villeneuve pitted on lap 8 leaving the lead to series regular Jason Leffler until lap 13 at which point it was former F1 driver Scott Speed who took point until his first pit stop on lap 17. Villeneuve was back on top through to his second stop on lap 32, at which point Robby Gordon took over the lead for four laps until his pit stop restored Villeneuve back on top once more.
The crucial lap of the race as far as the win was concerned was lap 44, when Villeneuve got off-course at turn 1 and then slammed into the right-front of Marcos Ambrose as he got back on line; the two made contact further round the lap with a hint of payback on Ambrose's part as this time Villenueve was sent for a spin that collected Elliott Sadler in the process. The #22 ended up in the pits for repairs for two laps.
"I got caught sleeping," rued Villeneuve. "Instead of leaning on him, I gave him too much room, ended up in the grey and lost control of the car. I should have been more aggressive."
“Jacques and I both dove into turn 1, but he ran out of track, got on the grass and was unable to stop,” Ambrose said. “Unluckily for him, it ended his day, but luckily for us, we were able to keep going. So in the end, it didn't matter."
That left Ron Fellows in the lead with Alex Tagliani overtaking compatriot Patrick Carpentier (in his final professional motor race before retiring from the sport) for third place on lap 46. Tagliani was able to barge his way past Fellows for the lead on lap 56, but he lost the lead to the recovering Marcos Ambrose at the restart on lap 64. That left Tagliani tangling with Michael McDowell for second through turn 1, and after losing that Tagliani then had to fight off Robby Gordon who ended up running into the back of the #12 during the scrap, bringing out the sixth and final caution on lap 67 after Gordon's car started spewing flames and oil over the track.
That meant Ambrose was in the lead for the final restart on lap 72 and he was able to hold off his rivals to the chequered flag, this time making no last-turn mistakes and finally taking the Montreal victory he'd been looking for over the last four years. All that despite starting from the back of the grid and not taking part in a single lap of practice before the green flag.
"It has been a heck of a day!" said Ambrose. "Started with the Cup practice in Michigan at 10 this morning, a helicopter ride, a plane ride here, another helicopter ride, then a boat ride to finally jump in another race car to come in and finally
win this race!"
The NAPA Auto Parts 200 win is Ambrose's fourth in Nationwide in 75 starts, all of the wins having come on road courses. He's the 13th different winner in the 24 races of the 2011 season so far.
Behind Ambrose, Michael McDowell strayed onto some oil quick-dry dust that had been laid down on the track following Gordon's problems, which allowed Alex Tagliani to slip past him to regain and this time keep second position. It was an excellent showing for the open-wheel racer who only last weekend was racing in IndyCar at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and who has only three Nationwide Series runs to his name. Tagliani's previous best result in the Nationwide series - also at Montreal - had been a lowly 26th place.
"I've very proud, very thankful for all the help I had from Penske Racing," said Tagliani. "It was great to drive the Hot Wheels Dodge this weekend here in Montreal."
Steve Wallace and JR Fitzpatrick finished in fourth and fifth place just ahead of Scott Speed and Carl Edwards. Danica Patrick finished down in 24th place with a suspected broken axle, while Jacques Villeneuve never recovered from that mid-race battle with Ambrose and finished in 27th despite leading the most laps of the day.
Canadian driver, stunt performer and model Maryeve Dufault finished a respectable 30th place in her series debut albeit five laps down, despite harmless spins on laps 13 and 67, and a more serious one on lap 15 that triggered the first caution of the afternoon when she rolled across the track and was hit by Trevor Bayne.
There were additional cautions for Louis Philippe Dumoulin crashing on lap 41, Boris Said running off at turn 10 and getting stuck in the gravel on lap 51, a crash for Alex Kennedy in turn 8 on lap 56 that also caught up Timmy Hill, and debris on lap 61.
Among the other incidents that didn't require a yellow were Andrew Ranger pulling off with a blown engine on lap 24; Bayne running off road on lap 25 and damaging the rear end of the Wood Brothers #16; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spinning on the penultimate lap but still managing to keep the Nationwide points lead by eight over Elliott Sadler; and Steve Wallace going three-wide across the grass through the final turn of lap 55 that ended with Carpentier getting spun out.
"Me and Carpentier were racing really hard," Wallace said. "I got underneath him, I tried to outbrake him. He crowded me. I got loose, and I spun him out."
"I guess Steve Wallace hasn't learned how to brake, so he spun me at the hairpin," Carpentier said. "After that, I just lost it, ran people over and they ran me over back. It's one of those deals."
Carpentier's crew chief Jerry Baxter staged one of the oddest bits of retribution on Wallace post-race, when he reached into the window of the #66 on pit road and started pulling Wallace's hair. "Only girls pull hair," retorted Wallace.
An estimated 70,000 fans turned out for the race - impressively large for a Nationwide event, making the speculation that the event is in danger in 2012 due to the withdrawal of local government financial backing all the sadder.
Full race results and times