Chris Gill: 'Spectacular' at The Glen, Ambrose seeks to round out his skills

Chris Gill

Given one more chance to grab the brass ring, Marcos Ambrose pounced and stole his first victory at the highest level of NASCAR, or arguably American auto racing, last year at Watkins Glen International. It was a major milestone for one of the most unlikely careers in the Sprint Cup Series.

Groomed for Formula One beginning at age 10, Ambrose displayed an uncommon ability – the transcendental “it” that distinguishes great ones from their peers. If not for a lack of funding in the costly, and politically cut-throat, European ladder series, Ambrose may well have joined fellow Australian Mark Webber in F1.

Instead, he returned Down Under to clean up in the V8 Supercars, becoming one of Ford Motor Company’s shining stars, even if die-hard race fans in the United States couldn’t pick Ambrose out of a lineup. Ford helped facilitate a move into NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series – a circuit made up exclusively of oval tracks.

After one year, he graduated to the Nationwide Series in 2007, recording modest top-10 finishes before NASCAR’s AAA division made a stop in Montreal for a rare appearance on a road course.

“It” became very evident that day.

Qualifying fifth, Ambrose worked his way into the lead twice – the second time for 26 laps as the counter ticked away toward the end.

A late caution bunched up the field, pitting Ambrose against one of Ford’s shining stars of the 1990s, Robby Gordon. Ambrose got dumped by Gordon, who was disqualified for the aggressive drive, with two laps remaining in “overtime” and settled for seventh, but by then Ambrose’s secret was out.

There was a new threat on NASCAR’s road courses, all the way from Australia.

At The Glen alone, Ambrose has four victories and seven podium finishes in eight starts between the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series. This weekend, he returns for a fifth victory, and second in the big leagues.

“Looking forward to getting there, it’s always been a happy hunting ground for me,” said the 35-year-old son of Launceston in Tasmania. “I just seem to really suit that track and I like the place, I like the style of the track, I like the banking in the corners, the high speeds of the circuit – I’ve had good cars there and a lot of luck.”

Last season was his breakthrough year with Richard Petty Motorsports, winning his first race and showing real muscle on the high-speed ovals. This season, numbers are down, but he tallied his first pole positions – including one at Michigan International Speedway, a two-mile D-shaped circle in Ford’s backyard.

Now in his fifth season on the big stage, numbers and results are beginning to build (one win, 12 top-5 and 30 top-10 finishes in 139 starts). His speed on the ovals is evident, but consistency remains elusive. In his mid-30s, he’s only beginning to understand what it takes to challenge on all circuits.

It begs the question: What if?

In a parallel universe, where a young Marcos Ambrose heads to the U.S. in his early 20s, what could a man of his talent have accomplished? Does he think about it?

“Yeah, maybe,” he said, dismissing the notion as nothing more than a daydream almost as quickly as it popped in his head, “I’m happy with my life, I’ve done really well to make it to the Sprint Cup Series and I’m proud of what I’ve done.”

He may not dwell on it publicly, but others do.

“One thing about him, there’s a lot of talent there. I believe talent is transferable. I believe there’s some people that couldn’t be successful if you moved them around, there’s other people if you moved them around they could be successful,” said veteran Jeff Burton, who in a quarter of a century around NASCAR racing as seen legends of the sport retire, dominate and rise to power.

“He hasn’t had the kind of success that I thought he’d have, to be honest, on ovals. He has shown speed, he hasn’t quite, I don’t think, learned how to race the ovals to get the finishes he deserves in some cases. But he has an immense amount of talent. He is pretty new in this style of racing game and there’s still so much more room for him to improve and that makes him dangerous. When he gets in the right equipment with the right people at the right time, he’ll be hard to beat.”  

No doubt, he’s has struggled with translating “it” to the ovals, which make up 34 of the 36 races on the Sprint Cup calendar – and 10 of 10 in the Chase for the Championship playoff format. But twice every year, and most notably every August in Schuyler County, Ambrose’s skills shine bright.

“Talent-wise, there’s no doubt, the guy’s incredible at road courses. The feel he’s looking for, the feel he wants, he can tell you pretty much spot on the changes and what he’s looking for in the race car at those places, in particular Watkins Glen,” said Todd Parrott, Ambrose’s crew chief with the 1999 Winston Cup championship to his credit. “I was really impressed up there with him (last year), the first time with him. We did a lot of testing at (Virginia International Raceway) and Road Atlanta, but I would say at Watkins Glen he’s pretty spectacular.”

None of his performances were more spectacular than his 2008 Glen Cup debut.

After posting blistering times on the practice charts in the Wood Brothers’ legendary No. 21 Ford, Ambrose was forced to start 43rd after rain spoiled qualifying. Once the race started, Ambrose began a furiously methodic march through the field.

Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon, Ron Fellows, Jimmie Johnson, Juan Pablo Montoya – none of them could hold off Ambrose’s charge. Once he got in the same zip code as the leaders, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart, his tires were shot and the brake pedal must have felt like stepping on a sponge.

He gave something to smile about to car owner Leonard Wood, whose glory years with Marvin Panch, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson had given way to the mediocrity of just one race victory since 1994. While employing the talents of the Aussie, Wood used his half century of experience determining just how this guy was shredding champions and future Hall of Famers on the track with only two prior Cup starts.

“He has a very good technique of getting the car slowed down on a road course, and that’s extremely important – that’s the No. 1 priority,” Wood said. “He’s very good at it, and it seemed like he had a lot of experience in Australia.

“The fact Ambrose started in the rear and didn’t put a dent on the car coming up through there, it was extremely impressive.”

Now Ambrose wants to impress over the course of the full schedule, not just once or twice a year.

His best oval finish this season is ninth, at Michigan and Kansas, with an eighth at the only other Cup road race in Sonoma, Calif. serving as a season high. His qualifying, however, has been brilliant (an average of 13.4 in the first 20 races) with the two aforementioned poles, six top-10 starts and four in the top three. The speed is there.

“This year, we haven’t delivered enough. I’m not happy with how I’m going on the ovals, but it’s a tough sport,” Ambrose said. “It’s a never-ending quest, to get a win on an oval and we’ve had our chances this year, we’ve run great – just haven’t had enough.”

Talking to him, a normally good-natured fellow carrying a smile shows his frustration about the deficiencies on ovals, or the general rotten luck this season overall. He’s 18th in the driver standings with no wins and no top-5 finishes.

It’s perfect timing for a trip to The Glen to, maybe, get a season back on track.

“There’s only one guarantee for the job and that’s performance,” he said. “There’s nowhere to hide, you’re up against it.”

(Follow Chris Gill on Twitter at @TheLeaderGill).