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Front-row starters unable to challenge at the end

June 25, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Marcos Ambrose started on the pole was forced into recovery mode after his car started to go away early in the race.(Getty Images)

SONOMA, Calif. -- Ambrose's car goes away early; Gordon runs out of fuel before second pit stop

Marcos Ambrose had the fastest car in qualifying, and Jeff Gordon had the fastest car in every practice. Who appeared to be the two leading contenders to win Sunday's race on the Sonoma road course started side-by-side on the front row at the green flag -- yet were nowhere to be seen at the finish.

Ambrose's car went to pieces early in the race, Gordon ran out of fuel approaching his second pit stop, and neither of the road-race experts was in position to challenge Clint Bowyer for the victory on the 1.99-mile layout. Gordon had one of the fastest cars at the end of the event and rebounded to finish sixth, while Ambrose came home eighth. But neither driver had a chance at the win they both badly needed to improve their chances at earning a berth into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

"It never fails, you run out just as you pass pit entrance. We were lucky to get back to pit road and get it fueled up."

--JEFF GORDON

Instead, that luxury fell to Bowyer, who not only secured his first victory since moving to Michael Waltrip Racing but also improved two positions to seventh in the standings to further entrench his playoff possibilities. Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman, both with race wins this season and 12th and 13th in the standings, respectively, continue to hold the lead in the battle for the two wild-card entries, with fellow race winners Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne close behind them.

Gordon and Ambrose, meanwhile, still are deep in the standings, looking up at most of the other contenders. Gordon improved two positions to 18th by virtue of his salvage effort Sunday, but it's growing increasingly clear that the four-time Cup series champion will need not just one race victory but perhaps two to leapfrog the seven drivers currently standing between him and a playoff position.

Early Sunday, snagging one of those appeared very possible. Gordon started second and overtook Ambrose for the lead on Lap 12, sneaking by after the Australian entered Turn 7 too hot. Gordon, the nine-time road course winner, held the lead for 13 laps until reporting that he had used up the front and rear tires on his No. 24 car. With most contending teams trying to finish the race using only two pit stops, drivers were going to have their hands full with cars that were deteriorating late in fuel runs.

"Take care of it, bud. We'll improve it," crew chief Alan Gustafson promised over the radio, and after the first round of pit stops, Gordon was able to maintain his position in the top five. The same wasn't the case after Gordon's next stop -- which begun with his car running out of gas as it approached pit road, forcing Gordon to creep along to his pit stall and costing him position on the race track. When the field had recycled, Gordon found himself in 15th and needing to make up a lot of ground at a venue where that sort of thing isn't very easy to do.

* Video: Gordon runs out of gas

"We went about a half a lap too far there on that one run," Gordon said. "I think we made the car a little bit better and just used a little bit more fuel in that second run and ran out, unfortunately. It never fails, you run out just as you pass pit entrance. We were lucky to get back to pit road and get it fueled up."

Gordon's car was good enough during the final run to get back into the top 10. "I thought I had a shot at getting a top five, and then someone laid some oil going into [Turn] 4," he said. "We didn't know, so a little frustrating there. Still a great finish, and a great, great performance."

Ambrose was forced into a similar recovery mode after his car started to go away very early in the race. "I've got no grip at all," he radioed to crew chief Todd Parrott on Lap 15. The No. 9 car, which has won poles each of the past two weeks, struggled to maintain position inside the top 20 before surging at the end to an eighth-place finish. Ambrose moved up one position to 16th in the standings, but like Gordon was left ruing what earlier in the weekend had shaped up as a golden opportunity to win.

"We really missed it," Ambrose said. "... We missed it bad, and we did good to recover and get a top 10 out of it. We will take it and move on. We got the pole and had a lot of speed. We just missed it for the race. We were slow. It was just terrible. We had no speed in the car, and we paid the price."

For both of Sunday's front-row starters, there was one consolation: the next road race, at Watkins Glen International, comes Aug. 12.

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