WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Eleven drivers have at least one Sprint Cup victory and are locked into the Chase for the championship. Marcos Ambrose wants to make it an even dozen.
Next stop, the Cheez-It 355 on Sunday on the road course at Watkins Glen. A win would earn the Australian his first berth in the Chase and give Richard Petty Motorsports a second car in NASCAR’s version of a postseason. Aric Almirola drove Petty’s famed No. 43 to victory in the rain-shortened July race at Daytona.
“This is our best chance. I’ve got to get in,” Ambrose said Friday. “It would make our year. We’re excited.”
Ambrose has established himself as the latest master of the speedy 2.45-mile road course in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. In the past three years he has won twice, outdueling Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch in the final laps in both 2011 and 2012.
A year ago, Ambrose won the pole, led 51 laps, and was the car to beat before pit strategy helped spoil his day as Busch prevailed for the second time at The Glen, besting Keselowski.
Ambrose lost the lead when he pitted just past the midpoint of the 90-lap race, restarted 12th, and limped home 23rd after a late crash.
“You know it won’t be easy,” Ambrose said. “There are going to be 10-12 guys out there that have a shot to win the race. You just know going in it won’t be a cake walk. It is going to have to be a big grind to get the victory. You can only do what you can out there behind the wheel and let the racing gods work out whether it is your day or not.”
Ambrose is in his fourth season driving the No. 9 Ford for the Petty organization, and his current deal with RPM is up at the end of the season. He said Friday he hasn’t even given the future a thought, though there has been speculation he might return to Australia.
“It’s been a struggle and the last couple of years have been like that,” Ambrose said. “It’s been a grind, no doubt. We’re looking for that next step. It’s a big step for us to have Aric, a great opportunity, but we need more than that.”
Under NASCAR’s new points format in Sprint Cup, any driver who wins one of the first 26 races is a pretty good bet to be among the 16 who make it into the 10-race Chase. With 11 winners heading into Sunday’s race, there’s almost no chance for a winner to be left out. If there are fewer than 16 winners, the remaining slots will go to the winless drivers highest in points.
Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman sit fourth and fifth in points and are firmly entrenched, while Clint Bowyer is well back in ninth. He’s 22 points ahead of rookie Kyle Larson and 27 ahead of 13th-place Greg Biffle, who holds the final transfer spot by one point over Kasey Kahne and two over rookie Austin Dillon in what promises to be a dogfight over the next month.
Ambrose sits 17th – 49 behind the current cutoff and likely too far back in the standings to make the Chase on points.
“If we get away with a top five and we get closer, then we could say it has been a solid day,” said Ambrose, who tested at The Glen two weeks ago to prepare for the Cup race and also will race in the Nationwide Zippo 200 on Saturday, an event he won three straight times (2008-10). “But we have come here to win.”
In the race last year, Keselowski had a chance to bump Busch out of the way and claim his first victory at The Glen. Instead, he finished second for the third straight time.
Busch is anticipating a repeat scenario. In Friday’s first Cup practice, Keselowski was third, Ambrose fifth, and Busch 10th.
“I think there’s three favorites because they’ve been the top three guys here the last three years – myself, the 2 (Keselowski), and the 9 (Ambrose),” Busch said. “I think you’re going to see those three cars be fast. I don’t necessarily think that anyone is chasing anyone. I think it’s just going to be us three trying to figure out who is going to win it.”
In the final practice session, Ambrose was second to AJ Allmendinger, Busch was third, but Keselowski faded to 20th.