Marcos Ambrose went into the final lap of the the Finger Lakes 355 in third position. At times over the next seventy seconds, he and the other leaders came perilously close to outright disaster on a treacherous track made slick by oil from a backmarker. But when the dust finally settled, Ambrose had clinched the win in one of the most thrilling climaxes to a NASCAR Sprint Cup race all season.
"It was just absolutely crazy at the end," admitted the Australian, who won his first NASCAR Cup race right here at Watkins Glen exactly a year ago. "It just feels so good to be back in Victory Lane ... It just feel so good. This year is pure joy. It's a great day."
Despite concerns about showers in the area, the race started on time at 1.20pm local time. Polesitter Juan Montoya didn't get to turn a single lap in the lead and was immediately passed in turn 1 by fellow front row man Kyle Busch, who went on to lead 43 of the 90 laps of the race and claim the bonus point for most laps led.
"We got the last two poles and I did think we had a car to win today," said Montoya. "We kind of bogged down at the start and Kyle got us."
From the jubilation after qualifying on Saturday, it was to prove to be another disappointing race day for Montoya. He was able to maintain position behind Busch over the first stint, but was off the pace after the first round of pit stops with a mechanical failure.
"I think it was the lower control arm," Montoya said while the team effected repairs. "We got a good pit stop and got ahead of [Busch]. It was looking really good; everything like it was going according to plan. The car started getting really tight and all of a sudden I hit a curb and the car went completely left on me."
Montoya did get back out but was far off the lead lap by the time he rejoined. He was just one of a number of cars that seemed to get beaten up by the Watkins Glen curbs, with other casualties including Montoya's Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing team mate Jamie McMurray, Joe Gibbs Racing's Joey Logano, Michael Waltrip Racing's Brian Vickers and Phoenix Racing's Kurt Busch.
"We don't know if a tyre went down or what," said McMurray of his exit from the race on lap 25 which brought out the first caution in the middle of the initial round of pit stops. "It just happened all of a sudden. The tyre blew out and we hit the guardrail [in turn 4] pretty hard."
"I felt it about 10 laps before that caution," said Logano of his own problems. "I felt it bouncing really hard in the rear. It ended up ripping the whole mount, the whole shock mount right out of the chassis."
Kurt Busch spun just after the first round of pit stops when his left-rear tyre fell off under the McMurray caution while he was in 11th place. He limped back to the pits where it was found that the problem was now a more substantial issue with the suspension that took the team nine laps to rectify before he was able to rejoin.
"The axle shucked out on the track," he said while waiting out the repairs. "It felt like a broken track bar again like we had at Sonoma, but it's not. They are just working hard to find out what it is."
That was a lot better than Brian Vickers fared while filling in for Mark Martin in the #55. Vickers' race ended almost before it started: "We blew an engine getting into turn 6. On the downshift maybe I over-revved it. I'm not sure. It's really frustrating."
With the McMurray caution coming in the middle of that round of pit stop, the running order at the front was jumbled: the front four were now Brad Keselowski, Marcos Ambrose, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, with Kyle Busch the first of the cars not having visited pit road now having briefly dropped back to eighth. Tony Stewart also had to make a stop, but he exited with the gas can still in place that incurred a penalty drive-thru for the reigning Cup champion.
The front three started to break away from the chasing pack, and as the laps went on it was clear that Keselowski and Ambrose were dropping Johnson and engaging in their own private duel. Finally at the start of lap 39, Ambrose made his move down the inside of turn 1 and claimed the position for himself for the first time in the race, quickly opening up a almost a second's worth of a gap.
It was an opportune moment to take the lead, as the weather radars were showing increasing number of rain cells popping up in the Watkins Glen area, and with the race now past halfway it meant that if the rain arrived in force and a red flag was called, the result could be called as it stood.
Even so, Ambrose had to give up the position to take to pit road at the same time as Johnson and Kevin Harvick on lap 47; that put Keselowski in the lead, with Kyle Busch now back in second place albeit still five seconds off the #2. Keselowski didn't need to pit until lap 58, putting him in range to finish the race without another stop. The strategy point became somewhat blunted, however, when Denny Hamlin blew up the next lap around to bring out the second caution of the afternoon.
"I have a thing with wrecks and fires lately, it's frustrating," said Hamlin, who was already in his backup car after wrecking on the oil laid down by someone else's engine blow-up in Friday practice. "I started feeling the heat and I looked down and saw fire right by my feet and it was coming through the fire wall. That part of it is pretty scary. Once I started to get a little fire on me, I decided to stop at the nearest fire station!
"For us, it's really the first engine issue all year," he added. "It's unfortunate, but it's part of racing – it's what happens. Just an overall bad weekend for us, not the way we wanted to end it."
That meant that everyone yet to pit - and even Ambrose, slightly earlier than planned for his own final stop of the day - could now pit under the caution. Keselowski was still in the lead, and Tony Stewart had benefitted as well and was now in second ahead of Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle.
With rain now in the air, NASCAR through the green on lap 62 and was rewarded by Kasey Kahne spinning off in turn 1 next time by, and then by Jason Leffler crashing and dropping oil on the backstretch on lap 64. By now the rain was very evident, but it was also pulsing on and off and was variable at different points around the circuit, delaying the call to throw the green flags again on lap 68.
Keselowski and Stewart were still in the lead with Bowyer now joined on the second row by Kyle Busch. Bowyer forced the #18 wide through turn 1 at the restart, giving Marcos Ambrose the opportunity to get the better of them both and leap back up to third place, but before anyone else could respond the race was back under yellow again for Tony Stewart spinning out of the final corner and crumpling the rear of the #14 into the guardrail at the entrance to pit road.
“Sorry, guys,” said Stewart over the team radio. “I gave it away there.”
That put Ambrose on the front row alongside Keselowski for the green flag on lap 74, but it was Kyle Busch starting alongside Bowyer again on the second row who got the best restart of the leaders to go three-wide into turn 1 and claim the lead. Keselowski initially held on to the #18's rear bumper, but as the laps counted down to the end of the race it was clear that Keselowski had given it his best shot and was now fading. Busch was pulling away and looked safe for the much-needed win that would keep his Sprint Cup "most wins" wildcard hopes alive.
The waning Keselowski lost second place to Ambrose on lap 80, by which point Busch's lead was over two seconds. Short of a caution it looked like Busch was safe: he must have held his breath when Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun in turn 5 on lap 83, but his luck held - Earnhardt was able to get back underway and limp back to the pits without causing a caution. Joe Nemechek was also slow on track as the race entered its final two laps, but he too made it back to pit road.
“I just got in the corner and made a mistake and that was pretty much all there was to it. I was just overdriving the car," explained Earnhardt of his incident.
Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jimmie Johnson was meanwhile quietly working his way past Greg Biffle for fourth place, but at the front it seemed that the die was well and truly cast and the podium placed were decided. What could possibly happen now?
The answer was Bobby Labonte. Pace car driver Brett Bodine was among the first to notice that the #47 was smoking up. There were some reports that Labonte's engine was spitting out oil on the track, but none of the official spotters could verify this and so no caution came out. One of the first to experience how bad it was out there was Earnhardt as he was getting lapped by the leaders after his earlier spin.
"I got back on the track and there was just oil everywhere from somebody," he said. "It was everywhere. You couldn't see it, but it was everywhere. So you didn't know where to run, and I saw the leaders were coming and I was just trying to get out of the way and they were in oil and I was in oil and then I watched everything that happened in front of me. It was a bad deal!"
Running in fourth, Jimmie Johnson agreed: "Those last two laps were just out of control with the oil down. You are studying the road trying to see if you can see an oil trail and there really wasn't a large visible one to dodge. But you could feel the oil on your tires and slipping and sliding and then guys are spinning all over. It was chaos," he said.
"We didn't have any reports of oil," insisted NASCAR Sprint Cup Series director John Darby. "The only corner-worker reports were that the #47 was smoking. They were asked repeatedly if he was dropping everything. The report back to us was: 'No, Tower. The track's clear.'"
The first real outward sign that something was seriously amiss was when Kyle Busch's pace suddenly fell away seconds after putting Earnhardt a lap down. The consistent lead he had enjoyed over his pursuers disappeared in just a couple of corners heading into the final lap.
Just seconds earlier, Keselowski had managed to get back past Ambrose for second place. That put him in the prime location to watch Kyle Busch sail off the track in the final run through turn 1. He put his foot down, but Busch came back on right in front of him and when Keselowski tried to brake, he found out just what Busch had experienced: the oil spray from Labonte's car made it impossible for him to slow down fast enough to avoid running into the back of the #18, and Busch was send into a spin into the guardrail.
Immediately after the race, Keselowski was under the misapprehension that the oil had come from Busch's car: "The #18 was leaking fluid something fierce and had no grip at all. When I caught him, it leaked really bad into one. He missed the corner because he slipped in his own oil.
"I got under him going into two and we all slipped in his oil, I hit him and spun him," he continued. "I mean, I had to say there was nothing I could do but there was literally nothing I could do. It was just one big giant oil slick underneath his car and I feel bad about that."
"There is 100 percent chance it came from somebody else," insisted Kyle Busch's crew chief Dave Rogers. "There is nothing wrong with this M&M's Toyota Camry. This car is fine, it's not leaking oil - look at the back bumper, there's no oil on it. There was another car in the field that blew a motor, went by us, we knew he blew a motor and instead of getting off the race track like he should have, he tried to stay out there and run the extra two laps and when he did he ran right through the groove.
"That was a mistake by another driver — oil on the field and the rest of us had to deal with it. Kyle was just the first one there," he continued. "Kyle hit the oil and it allowed the #2 car to get to us and he kind of raced us the way he raced us. It was a good car and Kyle gave a great effort."
The collision with Busch slowed Keselowski's own pace and left him with some bodywork damage that gave Ambrose the opportunity to close right up behind him, but both cars were barely hanging on because of the slippery surface and slid off onto the dirt on a number of occasions as they battled for the lead. Ambrose even rear-ended the #2 at one point - fortunately without sending Keselowski into a spin - and finally the two were side-by-side through the final corners of the race.
"It came down just running a whole lap against Marcos," said Keselowski. "I got in the oil and we'd slip up. He'd get by me and then he'd get in the oil and I'd get by him."
Even though Keselowski ultimately lost the race win by a nose, he was thrilled by the way the race ended with such high drama.
"Just really good, hard racing; some beating and banging. I think that's the way racing should be. It's great to race against guys like Marcos that you can run on, lean on and don't lose their cool and intentionally wreck you," he said. "That's what racing is supposed to be right there: a little bit of bumping and rubbing but none of that intentional wrecking BS. Marcos is a class act and that's the way racing should be."
Jimmie Johnson came home in in the #48 in third place almost nine seconds back down the road, followed by Clint Bowyer, Sam Hornish Jr. and Greg Biffle.
"I'm glad we got back to the finish line, finished third very solid day for this Lowe's team. I just can't thank everybody at Hendrick Motorsports enough for their hard work," said Johnson. "The first segment we were pretty far off. We came in on our first stop and made some adjustments and really got the car back in the condition I needed it in. Ran kind of third all day so real happy to finish where we did."
"What a wild last couple of laps," said Bowyer. "It kind of reminded me of the old motocross days when you had to go to the outside, inside and find some traction because the groove certainly didn't have any traction. Pretty wild. Sam and I had a heck of a race there then the #48 slipped up on the last corner and I thought I was going to hit him. Pretty intense last couple laps.
"I thought that we had a great car, great strategy and it all worked out today," said Hornish. "We had to come a long way from the back to start the race but I knew that the car was fast enough to make my way up through the pack. I just had to be patient and not wear the car out before the end of the race."
"It was a pretty good day," said Biffle. "It's unfortunate that I got in that oil. I had a fourth-place finish locked up because I almost wrecked and lost those spots. There for a while we were gaining on the #9 a little bit, but we were just off a little bit today."
Kyle Busch ended up classified in seventh place: by no means a complete disaster, but at the same time very far from the win he desperately needs to have a chance of making it into the Chase via a wild card.
Perhaps learning from the experiences of his older sibling about the perils of talking to the press while fuming, he simply said "I"ve got nothing good to say" and headed for his trailer, leaving others to do the talking.
“It was just a wild set of circumstances,” said Joe Gibbs, owner of the #18 car. "It just makes everybody sick. I don't think there's much you can say about it. It was an unbelievable set of circumstances is the way I would put it."
Another driver almost as unhappy as Busch was Jeff Gordon, who also spun on the oil on the final lap and felt that it was outrageous that there were no warning flags or even a caution from NASCAR.
"Oil all over the race track, it's pretty ridiculous they don't want to end a race under caution and put that many cars in jeopardy - I had no idea that there was oil out there," said Gordon, who was into the top ten by the time he hit problems on the last lap. "I went to the outside and hit it [oil] and just spun right out. I'm just really disappointed because we fought hard today to come back to get what was going to be a pretty nice finish."
Gordon's win last week at Pocono had provisionally handed him the second of the two "most wins" wildcards for the Chase, but the #24's spin at Watkins Glen left him with a 21st place finish and means the wildcard is now in the hands of Ryan Newman with one win in 2012 but more points than Gordon and Busch, while Kasey Kahne looks safer for the first wildcard with two wins already under his belt.
"The points are going to be what the points are going to be," said Gordon. It's just unfortunate that that gets taken away from you because NASCAR doesn't want to end the race under yellow. I understand you want to keep it entertaining and give the winner a shot at it, but there are a lot of other things going on our there too. I think they completely disregarded that."
The race winner disagreed. "We had the three fastest cars duking it out for the win. That's the way it should be, and I think they did the right call, said Ambrose. " A lot of guys are going to say, 'Should they have thrown a caution, or should they not?' - but no one wants to see these races end under caution, or bunched back up in these two-by-twos [restarts] making a random finish."
Busch's crew chief Dave Rogers didn't want to get drawn on the matter of criticising the race officials: "I think everything happened too quick [for NASCAR to respond] to be honest with you. By the time that NASCAR realized there was that much oil on the track, everybody was wrecked anyway."
But Rogers insisted that it was far from over for the #18's Chase hopes: "You can get in the Chase without winning," he said. "But it certainly would be nice to have that win. We're going to the racetrack the next four weeks to win the race. I think if you plan on going there to run top-five and beat the #24 car, you're fooling yourself. That's a really strong team with a lot of veteran guys that have won championships."
It's looking increasingly certain that at least one if not several big names will be missing out on the 2012 Chase; but not Jimmie Johnson, who now tops the points standings after the late-race spin for former leader Earnhardt at the Glen. Johnson is only a single point ahead of Greg Biffle, who in turn is just a single point ahead of Matt Kenseth.
As for Marcos Ambrose, he's some way off Busch and Gordon in the points but a second win in the remaining four races before the Chase cut-off could still see him make the championship play-offs for the first time in his NASCAR career. But such concerns are for another day: on Sunday he was happy celebrating his second career win in the series, along with his car owner and seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty.
"You go and you run and you do the best you can and then you try to take advantage of the circumstances that are there," said Petty. "That's what Marcos did today. He didn't create any of those circumstances, he took advantage of those circumstances.
"We had a good car, he ran good all day long. I think he was the excitement in the race because he was about the only one I saw pass anybody," Petty added. "Marcos stayed with it all day."
"We were up there with the big boys and led a lot of laps today and we had to pass a lot of cars to get the win and we did it," summed up Ambrose. "You've just got to put yourself in good positions and wins will come. That's what we did today. We had a fast car, we were in position to take advantage when it went crazy and we got the win.
"We didn't luck into it," he added. "We deserved to get this win - and we'll take it!"Full race results