Ambrose goes from back to 3rd at WGI

Bob Benz

Threatening weather to the west and the potential postponement of the Centurion Boats at The Glen preoccupied the minds of many Sunday at Watkins Glen International.

Fortunately, any trace of precipitation was nowhere to be found and the 90-lap race was completed in full under partly sunny skies.

If only the same scenario unfolded Friday for Marcose Ambrose, a road-course specialist from Tasmania, running in only the third Sprint Cup race of his career.

However, on Friday when wet weather washed out Cup qualifying, the field for Sunday’s race was set by car owner points, putting eventual race winner Kyle Busch on the pole, while Ambrose was relegated to the 43rd and final starting spot.

As it turned out, most of the rest of the field was still unable to hold off Ambrose , who ran for the Wood Brothers in the No. 21 Little Debbie Ford.

Ambrose weaved his way through the field and managed a third-place finish, one day after winning his first-ever NASCAR event as he took the checkered flag in Saturday’s Zippo 200 Nationwide Series race. In his first Cup race, Ambrose had transmission problems and finished 42nd after starting seventh. He placed 22nd two weeks ago at Indy while driving for Tad Geschickter.

On Sunday, only Busch and defending race champ Tony Stewart finished ahead of Ambrose, who made an admirable run to a podium finish.

“It was just a great weekend all around – it’s a shame we couldn’t try to qualify the car in because as it turns out, we had a pretty good place,” said Ambrose, who made it into third place on lap 78, just four laps prior to a nine-car crash that prompted a red flag and a 43-minute delay.

“I believe (Saturday) was great, but when I ran up there when the red flag (fell), I realized where I was. I was behind Tony (Stewart) and in front of all those other great drivers.”

Among the great drivers Ambrose had passed and eventually sped away from were Juan Pablo Montonya, Martin Truex and Kevin Harvick.

Aside from winning the Nationwide race Saturday, Ambrose also owned the fastest average lap speed during Saturday’s two Cup practice sessions.

“It’s just a real thrill,” Ambrose said. “We came up out of the trucks so well in practice (Saturday) that we were too scared to change anything and the car flopping around a lot during the race. It had a lot of grip, it was just really tough to drive, so I was just trying to stay clean as best I could there and pass cars cleanly and just pick away. I really had no idea where we were at until that last cycle of pit stops when we saw we were about in sixth place.”

Ambrose believes the race might have turned out differently had he gotten the opportunity to qualify. Instead, he made the most of starting from the back of the field.

“I think I was as fast as the 20 and the 18,” Ambrose said, referring to Stewart’s 20 and Busch’s 18. “My car was good on the longer runs and we just didn’t get a chance at the end to really show it. But I’m really happy. I’ll take a third place any day.”

Once the track was cleared following the 43-minute red flag delay, the field ran two laps under caution, setting up a five-lap shootout to the finish.

During the final five laps, Ambrose made a run at Stewart, but thought better of making a risky pass, which could have potentially wrecked the No. 20 and impacted his ninth-place spot in the Cup points standings.

“I just really wanted to be respectful to guys out there that are doing this week in and week out,” Ambrose said. “It’s not my place to stick my nose in and ruin someone else’s day that’s fighting for the Chase. So I was going to pass Tony. I really thought about it, I wanted to get a good crack at it, but I just wasn’t close enough, I didn’t get the run up the hill through the esses to get him in the bus stop.”

With Busch pulling away to a comfortable lead over Stewart after the final restart, Ambrose reasoned that a run at Stewart just wasn’t worth it.

“The difference between second and third to me was small, compared to the negative I would have had if I took out one of these Chase cars and got a bad reputation,” Ambrose said. “So I wanted to badly have a crack at Tony at the end there, but I thought better of it when I just didn’t have the run that I needed to to make a clean pass.”

Starting 43rd, Ambrose didn’t get into the top 10 until lap 56, when he made it to ninth. Nine laps later, Ambrose found himself in fifth and made it to fourth at lap 75.

“It felt like I passed everyone three times,” Ambrose said, drawing a laugh during his post-race press conference. “There was some guys there just through the cycle pit stops that I did pass three or four times out there.  We passed quite a few on the track.  We passed quite a few in the pits, too, just with our strategy.”

Aside from making pit stops, Ambrose never lost a position on the track during Sunday’s race.

“I wasn’t overtaken all day, which I’m proud of, and we did a lot of passing,” Ambrose said. “You have to have the right strategy when you come from the back.  It’s not all about passing cars back there, it’s about having the right calls and the pits, too. And (crew chief) David Hardy did a great job, stopped us at the right time so we could make it home on the gas, and it’s just been a great day.”

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