Road racers' futures differ but Chase in reach
August 08, 2014, Stu Hothem, NASCAR.com
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- AJ Allmendinger got some good news for his future on Friday that could give him some momentum while Marcos Ambrose did not address 2015 and beyond. But both drivers plan to take advantage of their road-course prowess at Watkins Glen International on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
The driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet announced that Kimberly-Clark Corporation extended its sponsorship with him and JTG Daugherty Racing through 2017 with the company's Scott, Viva, Kleenex, Cottonelle and Huggies brands. In June at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series other road course, Sonoma Raceway, Allmendinger and the team announced that it had extended its relationship with the Oakland-based Clorox Company.
With sponsors in hand for the next three seasons, Allmendinger's focus turns to winning the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen, one of five races left before the Chase and the driver's best chance to make it into NASCAR's playoffs.
"Hopefully with the good news, we get some good vibes and momentum when we come here this weekend," Allmendinger said.
His 13th-place average start and 9.2 average finish at the Glen are his best at any Sprint Cup track. He looks forward to making a charge into the Chase with a win on the New York road course where he has a top five and three top-10 finishes in five starts. But the new Chase format means anyone can win and anyone can knock the leader out of the way in the quest for victory.
"We all drive like idiots out there most of the time, honestly, and it's funny with this format now," Allmendinger said. "Whether you're Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. or Jeff (Gordon) or Jimmie (Johnson), the guys that are locked in, they've got nothing to worry about so they can take all the risks they want. And the guys that are on the edge or the people like myself or Marcos (Ambrose), we know we need a win to get in. We're all going to drive aggressive.
Allmendinger's best chances to make the Chase occur on the road courses, but he doesn't want the No. 47 team's strong season to be defined by only two weekends a year. He learned that lesson the hard way in June when he led the most laps at Sonoma before finishing two laps down in 37th.
"Waking up this morning, (I'm) thinking about possibility of winning, but you've got to go through the whole process," Allmendinger said. "I went to Sonoma. I woke up Sunday morning thinking we've really got a shot at this thing if everything works out right. There's a lot that has to work out right though. I don't want it to define our race weekend. If we go there and win the pole, lead all the laps and finish third, I don't want it to be disappointing. That's still a great weekend for our team."
Meanwhile, Ambrose has an option to leave Richard Petty Motorsports and speculation has centered on a return to V8 Supercar racing in his native Australia. But he's focused on getting his third Sprint Cup win in four years at the New York road course.
"I absolutely haven't even thought about (2015)," Ambrose said. "We have a big week this week trying to make the Chase for the (No.) 9 team, and that is all I am focused on."
Ambrose actually has a second focus this weekend as he returns to the Nationwide Series at the Glen for the first time since 2010. He won the Zippo 200 from 2008 through 2010 and hopes to tie Terry Labonte for the most victories in the series at the track.
While going for the weekend sweep with wins in NASCAR's top two series, Ambrose doesn't want to discount the possibility of making the Chase on points.
"We have to be careful because we are 17th in points," Ambrose said. "If we get away with a top-five and we get closer -- I think you need to be about 13th in points to feel like you have a shot to make the Chase -- then we could say it has been a solid day but really we have come here to try to win.
"At the same time, winning is very difficult in this series so you have to be proud of putting effort in. For me, if I have a good day and drive the very best I can and get out of here with a top-five I will take it as a decent day, but we have come here to win."
With Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Aric Almirola's win at Daytona, Ambrose hopes to give Petty a second team in the 16-driver Chase. Although his Richard Petty Motorsports team is on the verge of becoming the organization's second team in the Chase Grid, Ambrose said the two-car operation still has work to do.
"It is a big step for us to make the Chase with Aric," Ambrose said, also indicating the organization has one more test left this season. "That was a great day and a great opportunity but we need more than that. We need to fix our intermediate program and downforce program and find out where we are lacking. That will make it easier. That is the lion's share of the tracks we go to. It is never easy, none of them are."
A two-time V8 Supercar champion, Ambrose knows how to win titles. While his best points standings finish is 18th in five previous full-time Sprint Cup seasons, he also seems to enjoy his current struggle at RPM, making his decision for 2015 that much harder.
"Even when you are winning championships you think you are struggling, that is just how racing works. I am driving for The King and driving for Ford, and it is great to be a part of the series. Just because it is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t great."
Four-time Watkins Glen champ Jeff Gordon sees Allmendinger and Ambrose as ones to watch this weekend, and he agreed with Allmendinger's assessment that he'll be going for broke now that he's locked into the Chase.
"Marcos Ambrose and AJ Allmendinger they are always going for it here anyway," Gordon said. "You look for those guys to be super-aggressive because of the format this year, it is so important to win. I look for those guys to be charging really hard. We don't have a lot to lose either so we are going to be pushing pretty hard ourselves."