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Watkins Glen win has Ambrose thinking Chase

August 16, 2012, Holly Cain, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

A week ago, Marcos Ambrose was feeling eager and hopeful about defending his 2011 Sprint Cup Series victory on the historic Watkins Glen road course in upstate New York.

After pulling off a dramatic last-lap win (watch) there Sunday, the affable Australian woke up Monday morning feeling eager and hopeful about his chances to earn his first berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

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One checkered flag and Ambrose has gone from wistful optimist to confident contender.

"It's starting to sink in,'' Ambrose said Tuesday.

"After the lead-up to Watkins Glen it was, 'OK, we're in striking distance.' But we need to make some strikes.

"Part of my chitchat with the team [this week] ... most of our talking, has been about how we're going to make the Chase, what we have to do with the team to get there. That's what we're focused on.''

Another win in the four races left to decide the 12-driver Chase field would leave Ambrose well positioned for the final wild card. And the one oval he most likes his chances for victory is the 2-mile Michigan International Speedway, where the Cup Series races this Sunday.

Sure, it's ambitious to think Ambrose, who has only two wins in his Cup career, might pull off back-to-back victories. But there is reason for one of racing's most accomplished road racers to believe in himself at Michigan.

Ambrose won the pole there in June, turning in the fastest qualifying lap (203.241 mph) of the entire NASCAR season and he finished eighth in the race after leading 15 laps.

"After getting the pole there in the first race and running top-five most of the day we thought we had a great chance to win that race, lock ourselves in the Chase,'' Ambrose said. "That's really our only focus right now.''

Sunday's win gives him consecutive top-10 finishes in the No. 9 Ford for only the fourth time in his two-year tenure for Richard Petty Motorsports and only the fifth time in his four-year Cup career.

Just putting together this top-10 run shows the team's improvement and potential in a seasons-old quest to prove itself more than a perennial sentimental favorite.

And Ambrose is equally committed to proving himself more than just a road-course expert with a wide-open smile and a really cool accent.

The difference, all around, is attitude. And it can't be overstated what Sunday's win alone did to set the tone for this team. In many ways, the season has just begun for RPM's No. 9 team. Driver and crew alike.

"This team is walking a little taller this week,'' crew chief Todd Parrott said, a Cup veteran who knows how to win.

"Every guy here worked hard to make that car the best it could be and Marcos drove his tail off to get that win. Now we just have to carry that momentum to the oval.

"We showed in our last trip to Michigan that we can be fast there, and I think we can work from our notes from that race and from the tire test to get ourselves back up front again and get another win for our team."

As with the other four drivers -- Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano -- competing for the final Chase wild-card spot, winning is now everything.

Ambrose is 17th in points, one position ahead of Logano but behind the other three.

* Green-White-Checkered: Race to the Chase

Making it into the Chase on points is a long-shot proposition. The sure bet, is another win.

"Our focus has to be being aggressive on our strategy, being aggressive with the car and me on the race track being aggressive, too, trying to get that next win,'' Ambrose said.

"Without that we're just going to be racing for 15th, 16th in the championship. That's not what we're after. We're after more than that.

"Like every week in NASCAR , things are changing, things are moving. Just because you win a race last week doesn't change anything we're doing. We really have to keep applying ourselves and hopefully get it right here at Michigan to take the pressure off at the last three races.''

As he explained to reporters, "There's no easier formula than, 'If you're not first, you're last.' ''