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Caraviello:RPM's chance on Ambrose pays off at LVMS

March 06, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

LAS VEGAS -- Notches first top-five on an oval track since finishing third at Bristol in 2009

At his first meeting with Richard Petty Motorsports, Marcos Ambrose wore what he called his "Sunday best." The Australian-born driver was coming off his most disappointing full season since moving to NASCAR four years earlier, and he knew he had to sell himself to his potential new race team, and not the other way around.

It was the beginning of a career overhaul that also saw Ambrose walk away from a JTG/Daugherty organization that had been his comfortable home, and keep his family in North Carolina year-round rather than send them back to Tasmania for the winter, as had been their custom. He stepped way out there, making drastic changes in his personal life and seeking new challenges in his professional one, all in the name of showing his commitment to becoming the kind of contender the former V8 Supercar champion has always thought he could be.

"I ran like [junk] last year. I just couldn't get out of my own way. I had to shake things up. I don't want to be in NASCAR and just be a participator. I want to be a contender, you know?"

--MARCOS AMBROSE

Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, that faith was rewarded -- on both sides. Driving for an RPM outfit that slid into deep financial difficulty last season and emerged reorganized and scaled-down, Ambrose recorded his best oval-track finish in nearly two years with a fourth-place result in the Nevada desert. It was only one race, to be sure, but it was also a validation of sorts for a team trying to rebrand itself, as well as a driver who feels the need to prove himself every time he slides behind the wheel.

"It's just one race. We've got a lot more to go before I can start to feel like I've got some consistent form," Ambrose said on pit road. "But it's real exciting. I was under pressure, coming to a new team, a new group, nobody knew who I was. I could have tanked, or I could have done what I did today. It takes a little of the pressure off me. We can now enjoy the next few races -- we're safe in points and all that kind of stuff -- and just work toward winning races. I believe we can. I've got the team, I've got the equipment, I've just got to piece it all together and keep learning."

Ambrose was humbled by last season, which he entered as an outside Chase contender, only to crater to a 26th-place points finish, suffer through eight DNFs, and endure an infamous moment in Sonoma when he killed his engine trying to save fuel and let a chance at a first career Sprint Cup victory get away. After parting with JTG/Daugherty, he spoke with exactly one other race team -- RPM. A Ford guy going back to his Supercar days, Ambrose put on his suit, made his case, and emerged as the heir apparent to the departing Kasey Kahne in a No. 9 car that won 11 races going back to the Evernham Motorsports days.

Time and time again at Las Vegas, from his outside front row pole run on Friday afternoon to his strong showing on Sunday, Ambrose went out of his way to thank RPM for the chance the organization had taken on him. Why did he think he was a risk? Because of his disaster of a 2010 season, and because other drivers, including one with a past champion's provisional -- Bobby Labonte, who ultimately succeeded Ambrose in JTG's No. 47 car -- were available.

"I ran like [junk] last year. I just couldn't get out of my own way," Ambrose said. "I had to shake things up. I don't want to be in NASCAR and just be a participator. I want to be a contender, you know? I wasn't happy running 25th. JTG was very safe, very comfortable, but I needed to take a risk and get out there, and RPM was the same. They had a lot of turmoil last year, and they had to regroup. They could have taken the more experienced guy, and they chose me. I feel privileged and lucky."

Of course, in Las Vegas, chance bets can sometimes pay off big. That's just what happened Sunday, when Ambrose notched his first top-five on an oval track since he finished third at Bristol in the summer of 2009. Just one race or not, the glee was evident. "Ambrose!" crew chief Todd Parrott shouted, sporting a wide grin and offering an outstretched hand as he approached his driver after the race. "Awesome job, buddy." To the man on top of the pit box, his driver doesn't have to prove anything.

"In my opinion, he proved himself over there at JTG, how strong he was and what he was capable of doing," said Parrott, who won the 1999 series championship and 2000 Daytona 500 with driver Dale Jarrett. "I think he knows he's got really good equipment, first-class equipment, and now he's just got to execute."

At Las Vegas, he did that from the very beginning. Ambrose held the provisional pole on Friday until Matt Kenseth knocked him to second late in the session, and on Sunday ran consistently among the leaders on a day when a number of top contenders -- Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kenseth, and Greg Biffle among them -- found trouble. Parrott said the No. 9 was fast off the truck, yet since Vegas marked Ambrose's first intermediate-track event with his new program, the team made a number of changes in Saturday practice so the driver could feel the differences in how the vehicle behaved. Other drivers from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to winner Carl Edwards took note of how fast Ambrose's car was during Sunday's race.

"He was mighty quick," Edwards said afterward. Not quick enough to run down anyone in the top three -- clean air out front proved more valuable than almost anything else Sunday -- but quick enough to provide a boost for a driver and a team that needed one after a crash at Daytona and a 16th-place effort at Phoenix.

"It just feels great to come back from adversity and really start delivering," Ambrose said. "We've got some mojo. We're really getting after it. ... We're working on it, getting better and better every week. [Parrott] is starting to understand what I need from the car, and I'm starting to understand what feedback he needs to make the car go better."

Ambrose is also getting some advice from the King. When A.J. Allmendinger joined the organization that would become RPM late in the 2008 season, Petty went out of his way to embrace his young new driver, and the two developed a close relationship that spanned the generations between them. Now Petty is counseling Ambrose, another driver with his roots in open-wheel racing, in a similar way. "He's got some pearls of wisdom," Ambrose said. "You've got to listen to him, because he really knows."

Parrott said Petty speaks with Ambrose after every practice session. "He asks him what happened, what he did, if he had any issues or problems," the crew chief said. "[Petty] has won 200 races and seven championships. The guy, just because he hasn't driven one of these cars -- they're all race cars, and they all have the same characteristics. When the tires get old and get snotty, they all do the same things."

This weekend, those lessons paid off. Over the radio immediately after the finish, Ambrose told his team that when a driver has a good car, he never wants the race to end. The event at Las Vegas may have concluded, but Ambrose's race to prove himself continues. "It means I keep my job for a couple of weeks," he said of the fourth-place finish. He was joking, of course. But after the kind of chances he's taken, it's easy to excuse a lingering thread of insecurity. Even after a very different kind of Sunday best.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.