Driver has two top-fives, but a Sonoma victory eludes Ambrose
SONOMA, Calif. -- Of the 11 races remaining before the Chase for the Sprint Cup postseason deadline, two are on road courses. With that sort of schedule, it stands to reason that road racer extraordinaire Marcos Ambrose has more than a puncher’s chance.
While the familiarity and special knack for road racing favors Ambrose in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET, TNT) at Sonoma Raceway, it also creates a double-edged sword of pressure. With heavier expectations on his shoulders given his fair to middling performance on ovals this season, the burden of bettering his Wild-Card status will be even more crucial here Sunday.
Ambrose has his work cut out for him. He currently ranks 23rd in Sprint Cup points, having led just one lap all season with two top-10 finishes in 15 races so far. The Australian driver will need to push into the 11th to 20th range in the standings, plus nag a win or two to improve his eligibility for a Wild-Card spot.
“I’m very mindful that we’ve had a terrible year and this is a really good opportunity to get your year back on track, so certainly there is added pressure there,” Ambrose said Friday. “I would love to be top 10 in points coming into this weekend and just rolling through like a normal one, but it’s not for us. We need to turn our year around and this is a good opportunity for us, so we’re looking to break out and have a good weekend if we can. That does add pressure, but that’s just part of the job.”
"We feel like we’ve got as good a shot as anyone here to win it."
-- Marcos Ambrose
Given the emphasis, Richard Petty Motorsports spent one of its in-season test sessions here, hoping to gain an edge with the sixth-generation stock car that debuted at Daytona in February. Ambrose made it clear that his background and road-racing savvy won’t be an advantage in itself, given the increase in parity in the Sprint Cup field on road courses.
“I think the level of competition continues to get stronger in NASCAR, it just has to,” Ambrose said. “There’s more money in the sport and more at stake, so everyone is putting a lot of effort in, and the level of driver on road courses is as high as anywhere I’ve seen, so there’s no gimme. If you look down the sheet of people who can win, there’s at least 20 drivers that could win. Would you have put Clint Bowyer on that list last year when he went around here? Probably not, so it could be even thicker than that. It could be thirty-odd drivers that have a chance to win.”
Bowyer, who secured his first road course triumph in this event last season, jokingly said that Ambrose’s remarks were “kind of mean” before reminding the media of the Aussie’s 2011 defeat at Sonoma when he lost positions under caution after his car stalled. But the defending race winner was quick to mention that Ambrose’s skill on the winding courses is uncanny.
“He is amazing,” Bowyer said. “To watch him, last year I remember, his car was terrible and he had that thing hung out driving absolute daylights out of it and you see that and you're like, 'Man, I hope I don't ever get that thing pointed in the right direction and rolling good because he's going to be a handful,' and he usually is and I think he will be this year.”
Ambrose secured the Coors Light Pole Award for this race last season, but faded after the drop of the green flag to an eighth-place finish with an ill-handling car. It marked his fourth straight top-10 finish on the California track, but clearly the affable Aussie is hungry for more.
“This track has certainly eluded me for the victory,” Ambrose said. “Some things were in my control and some have been outside, but this track is tough. It’s not gonna give it to you and we feel like we’ve got as good a shot as anyone here to win it."