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'Smarter' Ambrose eyes first Cup win at familiar Glen

August 12, 2011, Joe Menzer,

Road course to his liking with three Nationwide wins, top speed in Happy Hour

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Rain or shine Saturday, Marcos Ambrose, the three-time defending champion of the Nationwide Series race at Watkins Glen International, has the same plan.

"I'm going to go fishing," Ambrose said. "I don't really want to be here Saturday to watch someone else win my race."

Watkins Glen

Practice 1
2. J. Montoya 125.557 70.247
3. Allmendinger 125.545 70.254
4.R. Newman 125.232 70.429
5. Keselowski 125.185 70.456
2. Ku. Busch 125.795 70.114
3. C. Edwards 125.761 70.133
4. Keselowski 125.722 70.155
5. M. Truex Jr. 125.636 70.203

Ambrose won't be defending his title because he won't be in the race. He said Friday that he had hoped to be behind the wheel in a Richard Petty Motorsports car, but that the details could not be worked out in time for Saturday's race.

"I've won it three years in a row," Ambrose said. "I'm very disappointed I didn't get a chance to do it. I think it's just a combination of the bad economy and just bad timing.

"We worked hard with RPM to put a team together, to put a sponsorship package together, and it just didn't work out. We were pretty close, but it didn't play out. We'll just try to forget about watching the Nationwide race. Whoever wins, I'll congratulate 'em -- but I want to be a long way away from the track [Saturday]. I feel like it's a race I wanted to do, and that I would have had a good chance for another win."

* Nationwide Spotlight: Ambrose talks Watkins Glen success

That's the bad news this weekend for Ambrose. The good news is that after he returns from his fishing trip, he'll still has the No. 9 RPM Ford to drive in Sunday's Sprint Cup race at the 2.45-mile track. And as a driver who has excelled on road courses in the past, he ranks as one of the top contenders in the event.

"We've had a tough month on the No. 9, so we're looking forward to running as strong as we can here and being a contender, no doubt," Ambrose said.

Ambrose showed the potential to be just that during the last of two practices Friday at Watkins Glen -- when he topped the speed chart with a fast lap of 126.604 mph. Rounding out the top five in Happy Hour were Kurt Busch (125.795 mph), Carl Edwards (125.761), Brad Keselowski (125.722) and Martin Truex Jr. (125.636).

But it was Ambrose who went the fastest and drew the most attention in the final practice before Sunday's race.

"Our car was fast. His car was screaming fast," said Edwards, who currently leads the Sprint Cup point standings in which Ambrose is mired in 23rd. "He was nice enough to talk to me some afterward, give me some pointers."

Edwards said he wasn't joking. He said he studies Ambrose on the road courses, and tries to consult with him as much as possible.

"He's phenomenal. He's an unbelievable road-course racer," Edwards said. "I would say that if he were to go run Formula One in the right equipment, he could be a threat for the world championship. I think he's that good. ... He is due to win one of these Cup races at any time. He's the fastest car here this weekend.

"He told me just his braking points, how he was shifting, the corners that he gave priority to. I hope he was telling me the truth, because I'm relying on that information out there."

There are no Sprint Cup practices scheduled for Saturday, only qualifying. That may play to the advantage of Ambrose, as well.

"I like the format of the weekend, practicing [Friday] without worrying about qualifying," said Ambrose, who still is seeking his first Cup win. "I think that will keep me a little calmer. When you qualify on Friday, sometimes it's quite a challenge to feel like you can actually use practice for getting ready for the race. You tend to use it to get ready for qualifying.

"I think we've just got to be smart here, tune the car as we go -- and I think it's going to be a fun weekend."

Ambrose was convinced of that even with a fishing trip planned Saturday instead of the Nationwide race. He said he had opportunities to drive for others in Saturday's event, but that he decided he either would drive an RPM-fielded entry or not at all.

"I just wanted to do it the right way. I wanted to do it with Richard Petty Motorsports," Ambrose said. "I wanted to field the car that way, and I think that was the right thing to try and do. It didn't work out. We'll look at it again [for other Nationwide events]. There are plenty more races, and there is the big-picture stuff.

Marcos Ambrose didn't want to attempt his three-time Nationwide defense at WGI without Richard Petty. (Getty Images)

"I'm excited about the Cup race. At the end of the day, the Cup race is what pays -- and it's what really keeps us all going. To do the Nationwide race too would have been great, but we didn't want it to mess with our Cup program."

The key to being around to contend for the win at the finish Sunday will be managing to get through the first 80 or so laps of the 90-lap event without making mistakes or abusing the car, Ambrose said.

"You're up against the best drivers, and they know what to do -- and they know how to get you out of the way if you give them the chance," Ambrose said. "So it's aggressive; it's dangerous as far as getting in accidents and incidents and spinning off and losing track position.

"The end of the race is really all about going 100 percent. The first part of the race so is more about making sure you're there at the end. You're still driving aggressively to maintain track position, but you're trying to manage your stuff."

Ambrose said he's improved mentally as a driver since his first attempt at running a Sprint Cup race on the Watkins Glen layout. That came in 2008 when he finished third in a car prepared by Wood Brothers Racing behind only second-place finisher Tony Stewart and race winner Kyle Busch.

"Maybe I'm just a bit smarter," said Ambrose, smiling. "My first year here I was driving for the Wood Brothers, and I was trying to make an impression so I would get an opportunity in the Cup Series full time. So you naturally drive differently than when you're in the main game full time. I was not really caring about the result that first year. I just wanted to look good, and get an opportunity like the one I have now.

"But you know, in this sport, if you're not aggressive you're not going to last very long. So I wouldn't say I've changed my style. I just think maybe I've gotten a little bit smarter."