WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — With The King atop the pit box at Watkins Glen International, Marcos Ambrose wasn’t about to disappoint.
The aggressive Australian dueled early with Kyle Busch to fall off the pace in the NASCAR Nationwide race, then was flawless the rest of the way Saturday, holding off a hard-charging Busch at the end to win the race for the fourth time in his last four starts.
“It’s just something special. I’m just so thrilled for the guys,” Ambrose said. “I had my tongue hanging out the whole day. There was nothing left. I tried to hold him back. Another lap and I would have been in trouble.”
Ambrose raced to three straight victories at the track from 2008-2010, then missed the 2011-2013 events after failing to find a sponsor.
Ambrose’s future in NASCAR with Richard Petty Motorsports remains in doubt, and he desperately needs a victory in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race to have any chance of making the Chase for the championship.
“There’s a lot at stake, a lot of stuff going on in my mind,” Ambrose said. “If I can repeat my performance today, I’ll be happy.”
At least Ambrose will start from the front row alongside Jeff Gordon, so the catbird seat will be up for grabs as soon as the green flag waves.
“Maybe this will give him a little more incentive,” Petty said. “He’s just unreal. He’s doing his job, for dang sure.”
Joey Logano finished third, followed by Penske teammate and polesitter Brad Keselowski. Matt Kenseth was fifth as Sprint Cup drivers dominated on the speedy 2.45-mile road course.
Points leader Chase Elliott finished sixth, Ty Dillon was eighth, and Regan Smith had a difficult race and came home 17th. That boosted Elliott’s lead in the standings to 12 points over Smith and 13 over Dillon and Elliott Sadler, who was seventh.
Ambrose led 48 laps of the 82-lap race for his fifth Nationwide victory, all on road courses and a series record.
The race became intense early when Busch and Ambrose, who started together on the second row, tangled in the chicane, or inner loop, on the sixth lap. Busch drove inside of Ambrose entering the quick four-turn section, a move reminiscent of one Ambrose made when he stunned Busch in the same place in the 2009 event and went on to win the race.
“I looked up halfway down the back straight, he was close and he ducked out late,” Ambrose said. “I turned in late because I was very committed. He bumped my left rear. It wasn’t intentional. He was trying to get out of the way. No harm, no foul. Just hard racing.”
Both spun out into a big runoff area after the contact, dropping several spots in the running order as the Penske duo of Logano and Keselowski took control.
“I knew it wasn’t over, that’s for sure,” said Ambrose, his young daughters smiling as they watched in the media center. “The moment I spun out, I tried 110 percent the rest of the way. It just goes to show you these races are never over. You can’t quit.”
A decisive moment came just past the midpoint of the race. Logano pitted after Ambrose and zoomed onto the track as Ambrose came streaking by. Both ran side-by-side through the first two turns and into the uphill section until Ambrose edged ahead.
“Super important,” Ambrose said. “If I hadn’t cleared him right there, he would have been gone. It would have been hard to pass him.”
“That was definitely a key moment,” Logano added. “If I could have gotten out front of him there, I felt like if I got clean air and ran hard, I could gap him. It would have been close. I’m not going to say I would have won the race, but if I didn’t run so hard and burn off the tires, would it have been enough to beat him? I don’t know.”
When the race restarted with 20 laps to go after the fifth caution, the four cars that began the race in the first two rows were still there, just in a different order.
Ambrose cleared Logano when the green flag flew, with Busch and Keselowski right behind. Busch challenged Keselowski for third entering the chicane, and Keselowski’s defensive move sent him spinning off course, grass and dirt flying as he dropped to sixth.
Logano stalked Ambrose as the two front-runners pulled away from Busch by over 2 seconds as Keselowski tried to rebound from his mistake. Busch began to close, passing Logano with less than five laps to go but never got to Ambrose’s back bumper.
“I just got caught in a bad spot early and battled back,” Busch said. “I tried to chase down Marcos. A few more laps maybe, but.”