After two and a half seasons in Sprint Cup competition - 105 starts in all - Marcos Ambrose has finally arrived in victory lane following a nailbiting and explosive finish to the rain-delayed race at the historic Watkins Glen International road course.
It took place in the unfamiliar setting of a Monday morning after the race had been unable to run in its usual scheduled Sunday afternoon slot because of heavy rain hitting the area. As feared, rain was still threatening on Monday as the green flag finally dropped for the 'Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen' Sprint Cup race: the showers were very light and fairly brief, but it was still enough to make the track greasy and the grass wet enough to catch out the unwary, but delaying wasn't an option even as the fog rolled in to add to the problems, as the forecast looked much worse for later.
Hence it was 10am in the morning at the Glen in New York state, under less than optimal circumstances, when the race finally got underway, with AJ Allmendinger immediately getting aggressive and beating pole sitter Kyle Busch through turn 1 to take the early lead, Kyle going another place down before the end of the second lap after Allmendinger's Richard Petty Motorsport team mate Marcos Ambrose also pushed past.
The tricky conditions were underscored when two drivers expected to do well at the Glen had early offs: Kurt Busch, who had won Saturday's Nationwide Series race, spun off through the inner loop section while trying to pass Dale Earnhardt Jr. and was forced into the pits on lap 4 to have the car tidied up, new tyres fitted and grass removed from the grille, putting him briefly a lap down; and Boris Said similarly got lose, spun and slid off the track on lap 2 and was forced into his own early pit stop for a clean-up and to deal with a vibration issue. There was also a drive-thru penalty for Casey Mears who had changed lanes before the green flag at the start.
More cars were coming in for surprisingly early pit stops, with Kevin Harvick in for an apparently routine visit on lap 7 and Ryan Newman in the next time by, but by contrast others such as Ambrose and Juan Montoya stayed out to lap 17 when a brief intensifying of the drizzle made them pre-empt a full course caution that didn't happen.
Whatever Allmendinger's pit stop strategy was intended to be, it was upset when he tangled with Kurt Busch on lap 9, with Busch determined to recover from his early problem and get back on the lead lap. In getting past Allmendinger, Busch locked up his rear brakes and the #43 was pushed wide off the track. AJ was not at all happy as he made clear over his car radio, especially when two laps later he was forced into the pits to take care of the grass clogging the grille and consequently fell to 35th place.
Arguably the most surprising strategy was that of Kyle Busch, who opted to stay out much longer and found himself with a huge seven second lead over his nearest rival. By lap 26 he was coming up on the back of Carl Edwards to lap the #99, after Edwards had suffered a lengthy pit stop for handling adjustments. The highest-placed of the early stopped was Marcos Ambrose back in tenth position.
There were ongoing complains about the conditions - brief rain here, a wet track there, grass thrown up onto the track, too much water on the infield, too little visibility in the fog - but the first full course caution didn't materialise until lap 28 when Greg Biffle stalled in the inner loop section having run out of gas. Leader Kyle Busch was almost badly caught out with the timing, driving on empty himself by this point and needing to coast through the caution laps until the pit road was open and he could come in for gas.
That put Marcos Ambrose back on front for the second time that morning, followed by Montoya and Jeff Gordon with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fourth place (despite his pathological hatred of road courses) just ahead of Red Bull duo Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne. All of them had stayed out, with Kyle Busch having dropped back to eighth place with his pit stop for maximum fuel and four tyres while others who came in largely going for shorter fuelling and only two tyres.
The restart came on lap 31 with Ambrose retaining the lead from Montoya, but in the midfield David Reutimann got spun out after contact with Mark Martin and then got a black flag to come in for repairs to the bodywork barely hanging off the back of the car when he got underway again.
Ambrose led through to lap 39 when he came in on his scheduled second stop, with Montoya briefly leading before coming in himself and then Jeff Gordon taking up the top spot on lap 42 as he battled to stay ahead of Kyle Busch in the #18. Gordon was still in front at the end of lap 45, which marked the all-important halfway point for the race and meant that come what may it was now "official" - a rollover to Tuesday was now no longer on the cards, and as if to celebrate the weather itself was starting to perk up, with the heavy fog lifting, the drizzle abating and the skies brightening up.
Having reached that landmark, Gordon suddenly struggled with the #24 getting really loose and promptly lost positions to Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski in short order, putting him back in third ahead of Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne.
That was still the order at the top on lap 49 when suddenly a tyre blew on the #22 of Kurt Busch, who had battled his way back up to 17th after that earlier difficult start. This time he hurtled off track at speed and made a heavy arrival into the tyre wall at turn 5. It was serious enough to bring out the second caution of the day, which was at least good news for Boris Said who got the free pass and was back on the lead lap.
“I had a big problem getting into the braking zones today; just rear brakes locking up," Kurt said after the crash. The extra brake pressure had generated heat that ended up blowing out the tyre. "It was a bummer of a day and not anything that we expected. It must have been something with the brake package. Whatever Keselowski found at Road Atlanta, I had a problem with today," he said worryingly.
The timing was not ideal for the rest of the drivers: with 40 laps left to run (and weather looking much less likely to curtail the proceedings), no one could yet make it hope by pitting and refuelling now. The early experiences of Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle had firmly demonstrated that 28-30 green flag laps was the most anyone could run on a single tank on this 2.45-mile, 11-turn circuit configuration, so Gordon was the highest-placed of those coming in to the pits under the caution as he really had to get something done about how loose his car had got. The stop put him down to 22nd place for the restart on lap 52, and still meant that everyone out there would have to make at least one more pit stop. For some - like Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. - that would still be a very fine call.
Kyle continued to lead through to lap 58, at which point Brad Keselowski put all worries about the braking prowess of the #2 Blue Deuce following his Road Atlanta accident clean out of his mind to outdrag Kyle across the start/finish line to claim the lead. But he did so just as lap 60 came up, and with exactly 30 laps to go to the end of the race it was time for those who were working a long two-stop fuel strategy to pile into pit road. Keselowski, Busch and Tony Stewart led the way in, but it was still a knife-edge as to whether they would make it the full race distance from here.
On a three-stop strategy, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Montoya now returned to the lead on lap 61, with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, AJ Allmendinger and Jamie McMurray forming the top six. Kyle Busch was the highest-placed of the recent stoppers in 12th, having got back out ahead of Keselowski who was running in 13th.
Ambrose and Montoya didn't wait long before pitting themselves on lap 64, handing over the lead to Johnson for a single lap before he pitted in turn leaving Jeff Gordon minding the store. He was still in front when the third caution of the day came out on lap 66, which was exactly what those like Kyle Busch running long final fuel stints needed to help get them to the end.
But Busch won't have been happy to see the cause of the caution being his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Denny Hamlin, who went flying into the tyre wall at turn 1 at high speed and took a worryingly hard hit in the process after what had looked to him to be a front left brake line failure. "I don't know what broke but that was one of the hardest hits I've ever had," he tweeted later on, reassuring fans that he was okay.
"It must have cut a brake line, so I had no brakes. I was trying to do everything I could to weave or anything I could to get the speed down in the car," he said. "There was just nothing you could do. The front tyres locked up, and you can't steer."
Fortunately Hamlin had been able to climb out of the crumpled #11, but he looked shaken and was driven away in the ambulance for a routine visit to the infield care centre after waving at the crowd. He had been working hard all day to recover from starting at the back of the field after hitting the wall through turn 5 during his qualifying run: safe to say, the Glen wasn't going to be his favourite course of the year and may well have a major effect on whether he makes the Chase or not after the crash resulted in a 36th place finish.
Gordon pitted under the caution and took the restart in 20th position, while Earnhardt Jr. similarly took a hit and fell to 22nd after looking like he might be flirting with a breakthrough road course epiphany at one point. The race went back to green with 21 laps to go, Busch retaining the lead and checking out at the front, while Keselowski briefly lost second place to Truex Jr. and then came under further pressure from Ambrose. But Brad was soon back on form and back in second, and Ambrose soon dispatched the upstart Truex for third and then pressed Keselowski for second, claiming it on lap 75 and showing every sign of being right on course for his maiden Cup victory as he started to cut into Busch's lead.
By lap 82, with just eight laps to go before the end, Ambrose was right up on Busch's back bumper and the #18 was feeling the sustained pressure lap after lap, overdriving into turn 6 on lap 85 but managing to just about hold onto the lead despite the error.
And then on lap 86 the game completely changed, when Paul Menard - another outside Chase possibility - blew a tyre into turn 2 and hit the wall coming out of the esses at turn 5, taking a hard hit that left the #27 on fire and scattering fluids and debris all over the track for a very long stretch that would require a lengthy clean-up. Menard himself was okay and swiftly out of the demolished car, but it would be a painful blow to what had remained of his Chase hopes as he slumped to a 32nd place finish.
"The tyres were getting old but nothing was indicating that I had a tyre corded or anything," he said afterwards, lamenting the loss of a prospective 14th place. "The place is hard on brakes and that builds a lot of heat in the tyres. Really no warning though. Just going through a wide-open section going to fourth gear. I felt it popped, I lifted and the wall came up in a hurry."
It left the race staring at a thrilling final green-white-chequered showdown for the win between Kyle Busch and Marcos Ambrose, both with much to prove at the Glen; and not to forget Brad Keselowski now closed right back up to them under the caution and ready to make his own play for the win. But the critical factor also looked to be fuel, with Busch and Keselowski both right on the limit, but Ambrose, Montoya (in fifth) and Johnson (sixth) all good to run full throttle. Oh, and just for good measure, after a brief outbreak of sunshine half an hour before, suddenly there was rain in the air again.
The green flag came out, the leaders going three-wide down the frontstraightaway before Kyle overshot turn 1 and lost the lead to Keselowski. Ambrose had spun his tyres initially but soon recovered and was right onto and then into
the back of the #2 in turn 5, physically moving the Penske aside in a classic sportscar move to take the lead for himself at the white flag, which made the race result official at the next flag.
"I just turned up into turn one and tried to make something happen," said Ambrose. "I'm pleased we did it clean - but I was gonna get to Victory Lane. I wasn't gonna let that #2 beat me to the chequered flag!"
And that flag was triggered before Keselowski could mount a fightback on the final lap, when all hell broke loose further down the field. Boris Said had tapped David Ragan into the wall hard at turn 1 at quite the worst angle. The #6 then bounced back off the barrier into the path of David Reutimann, sending the #00 seriously airborne and flipping him into the catchfence at turn 2 before it landed upside down in a quite horrifying accident. Elsewhere, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer had a private party when they made contact in a separate incident through turn 5.
Fortunately Reutimann was able to exit the #00 in surprisingly decent shape despite the dramatic aerial exhibition, although he later showed off the rip in his firesuit where debris had penetrated at the shin. Ragan was looking bruised and battered when he limped away from the #6 and headed to the ambulance, calling on NASCAR to insist on the installation of SAFER barriers at the Glen rather than the old fashioned metal and tyre arrangements.
"It's a shame that a race track we go to in 2011 doesn't have a better wall design all the way around the race track, so hopefully they'll look at that. I've been to some dirt tracks that have better walls than that," Ragan said.
"I'm okay, I'm sore. That was a hard hit. I looked down at my feet and my pedals and my leg rests were all pushed over," he continued. "I felt like I had Boris clear and I think he got a little better run that we did and he just hooked us. He certainly could have given a little more of a break and we all could have gotten through there and not torn up anything. But he was aggressive and we were all aggressive. He hooked me and I hit hard."
Meanwhile, Ragan's Roush Fenway team mate Greg Biffle got involved in a heated altercation in pit lane with Boris Said, the driver who had triggered the explosive last lap crash after contact with Ragan - although their confrontation appeared to be over a clash from last year's race at the Glen rather than anything that happened on Monday.
"I went over there to go talk to [Biffle], and he wouldn't even let me get out of the car. Throws a few little baby punches and then he runs away and hides behind some big guys," said Said after the race. "He's the most unprofessional little scaredy cat I've ever seen in my life. He won't even fight me like a man. ... I'll go see him Wednesday at his house and show him what he really needs. He needs a freakin' whoopin' and I'm going to give it to him."
Said was complaining that Biffle was "flipping me off, giving me the finger, totally unprofessional" during the final part of the race even though Biffle was two laps down at the time. "He won't hide from me for long. I'll find him. I won't settle it out on the track – it's not right to wreck cars – but he'll show up with a black eye one of these days. I'll see him somewhere."
"Boris Said and Greg Biffle had a few problems, and Boris wanted to settle it with his fists," Said's crew chief said wryly.
Meanwhile, further round the track it suddenly dawned on Marcos Ambrose that he was at last a Sprint Cup race winner, in a thoroughly deserved and hard-fought victory and that he was finally heading to victory lane as the fifth first-time winner in the 2011 Cup season.
"We just had a really good combination of balance," Ambrose said after the race. "We didn't have any exceptional spots on the race track, we just had even balance across the whole circuit, and I was able to look after the rear tyres."
“I've sacrificed so much to get here and to finally win and be here in Victory Lane in the Cup Series is a dream come true," he said. "This win is for her and the whole Petty family. Richard and everyone else who gave me the chance, thank you very much.
Despite his maiden win, Ambrose still looks highly unlikely to make it into the Chase as he's in 22nd position - outside the top 20 means that he's not eligible for a "most race wins" wildcard. Instead, the big winner in Chase terms this week was Brad Keselowski, who climbs to 14th position in the Sprint Cup points standings
and is currently top of the wildcard list with his two race wins.
"I was in position to win the race, but I just wasn't quite good enough to beat Marcos," admitted Keselowski. "He's so good here. He deserves the win for sure. If there's a guy you should lose to on a road course, it's Ambrose. There's no shame in finishing second to that guy."
As things stand, Denny Hamlin would take the second wildcard despite falling even further away from the top ten automatic Chase qualifiers after his mid-race crash, because Paul Menard also wrecked early. The biggest loser in Chase terms was David Ragan, who drops out of the top 20 entirely with that violent final lap wreck.
At the top of the points, Kyle Busch takes over as championship leader by one point over Carl Edwards despite his disappointment at missing out on the race win.
Former F1 driver Scott Speed ended classified in a lowly 39th place after being forced to retire on lap 21 with rear end damage inflicted by David Gilliland.
Full race results and positions