This time last year, Marcos Ambrose was still waiting for his first win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup when the NACAR circus ventured to Watkins Glen in upper New York. Two battles with Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch later and Ambrose finds himself a two-time winner. How things can change.
On Sunday, the win looked to be beyond Ambrose’s reach. With a lap to go, Busch held a comfortable lead, while Keselowski looked solid in second. The Australian needed a miracle for things to fall his way, and that’s precisely what happened.
It all happened in a flash. Busch’s lead evaporated ran wide on oil on the exit of Turn 1, allowing Keselowski a whiff of victory. As the Penske Racing man stuck his nose for Turn 2, Busch turned in, spinning himself into the barriers and out of contention.
Crucially, NASCAR officials refrained from throwing the caution – despite the omnipresent oil slick thrown out by Bobby Labonte’s expiring Toyota – instead choosing to allow the cars to race to the line. Capitalising on Keselowski’s loss of momentum, Ambrose tucked into the slipstream of the Blue Deuce down the back straight, so close behind that he followed Keselowski across the oil which spat both cars off the track at the Carousel.
As they scrambled back on towards Turn 5, Keselowski opted for a defensive line, prompting Ambrose to take a wider line which would give him a much faster exit off the corner. The Aussie used all of the road and more to avoid having to scrub off speed, and powered past Keselowski on the run down to Turn 6. But courtesy of a slight tap from behind, Ambrose ran very wide, handing Keselowski one last chance. He was now alongside, but stuck on the outside line for the final corner, leaving Ambrose free to ease his adversary out to the edge of the road and take a remarkable win for Richard Petty Motorsports.
“Just really good, hard racing; some beating and banging. I think that’s the way racing should be,” Keselowski grinned, pleased to have merely survived the frantic final lap. “It’s great to race against guys like Marcos that you can run on, lean on, and they don’t lose their cool and intentionally wreck you. That’s what racing is supposed to be right there: a little bit of bumping and rubbing but none of that intentional-wrecking BS. Marcos is a class act, and that’s the way racing should be.”
“It was absolutely chaos at the end,” said an exhilarated Ambrose. “You just couldn’t see where [the oil] was at. If it was a black streak, it would be OK. It was almost like a fine spray and just really hard to pick. I was the first one to start sliding on it for whatever reason. I thought it was my oil, not knowing what was really going on, and it wasn’t until I saw Kyle and Brad sliding as well that I thought, ‘OK, there’s something down here on the track and we’re just gonna have to deal with it.’”
“But I think a big shout out goes to NASCAR,” Ambrose continued. “A lot of guys are gonna say, ‘Should they have thrown a caution or should they not?’ No one wants to see these races finish under caution or bunch back up in these two-by-twos and making a random finish. We had the three fastest cars duking it out for the win and that’s the way it should be. I think they made the right call.”
One man who couldn’t agree less was Jeff Gordon, the four-time champion furious about NASCAR’s laisseiz-faire take on officiating. Gordon had been battling Matt Kenseth for eighth when he spun on the oil at the final turn.
“They don’t want to end a race under caution and put that many cars in jeopardy,” Gordon fumed. “I had no idea that there was oil out there. I knew there was all kinds of havoc happening all around… To work that hard all day long, come all the way from way back up into the top 10 and have it taken away because they don’t want to throw a caution, it’s pretty disappointing.”
Busch was also understandably upset after loosing a race he had dominated on the final lap, eventually crossing the line seventh. Busch led a race-high 43 laps, seizing the initiative from pole-sitter Juan Pablo Montoya on the opening lap, and looked odds-on for his second win of the year, which would have leapfrogged him into the final Wildcard spot for the Chase. His bad luck means that Ryan Newman still holds the upper hand after his win atMartinsville, while Ambrose has also thrown his hat into the ring.
Busch himself declined to comment, leaving crew chief Dave Rogers to face the media.
“He was obviously frustrated that we sat on the front row and we led the most laps,” Rogers said. “We had to pass cars. It wasn’t an easy day for us. Then to come within a lap of winning the race, he was obviously frustrated, as we all are. … I thought that we had the car and the driver to win with three to go, but you always know something can happen.”
Rogers vented his frustration at 2000 champion Labonte for trying to complete the race, despite the danger he was causing the other drivers. This was the second time in 2012 that a back-marker has influenced the race result; David Reutimann’s faux pas atMartinsville set up an unscripted grandstand finish that saw several dominant frontrunners eliminated.
“There was another car in the field [Labonte] that blew a motor,” Rogers said. “Instead of getting off the racetrack like he should have, he tried to stay out there and run the extra two laps and when he did he ran right through the groove. That was a mistake by another driver and the rest of us had to deal with it.”
New championship leader Jimmie Johnson drove a clean, quiet race to third place, ahead of Sonoma victor Clint Bowyer, who did brilliantly to drive around a braking problem. Sam Hornish Jr. was a surprise fifth, a result which can only have strengthened his case to be retained full time at Penske Racing next year in the continued absence of AJ Allmendinger. 2006 Indy 500 winner Hornish has taken a while to adapt to stock car racing, but his third career top-5 shows things are starting to turn around: he currently lies just 24 points off the championship lead in the Nationwide Series after qualifying on pole and finishing third on Saturday.
“I thought that we had a great car, great strategy and it all worked out today,” Hornish reported. “We had to come a long way from the back [17th] to start the race, but I knew that the car was fast enough to make my way up through the pack. I just had to be patient and not wear the car out before the end of the race.”
Greg Biffle came home sixth, ahead Busch and a relieved Matt Kenseth, who made the finish for the first time sinceNew Hampshire.
“We need to get a couple of top 10s before the Chase to make sure we’re in,” Kenseth said. “I know most people look at it and they just think we’re a shoe-in because we’re so far ahead of 11th, but after wrecking out the last two weeks in a row, we needed to get a solid finish and this is definitely not a good track for me, so it’s good to get a solid finish.
Regan Smith and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top 10 for Furniture Row Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing respectively.