Mike Neff · Monday May 30, 2011
Marcos Ambrose is on the verge of breaking into the win column and it very well could happen on an oval track rather than on a road course which is where most fans assume the breakthrough is going to happen. The Coca-Cola 600 had the potential to be that win for Ambrose after he ran very well in the All-Star Showdown last weekend. He ran at the front of the pack for most of the 600-mile event on Sunday, but a loose lug nut caused an unscheduled pit stop which seemed to derail Ambrose’s night and his crew. However, a late race caution allowed Ambrose to come into the pits, his crew to bust off a quick, two-tire stop, and then the fuel mileage debacle at the end of the event afforded him a sixth place finish. The evening was a lesson in perseverance that very well could help his team get over the hump to that first win.
As the night began for the No. 9 Ford they were in 24th position when the green flag flew. When the car took off, Ambrose reported that it was tight and the tires were chattering in the corner, but he was still moving forward. By lap 40 he was in 22nd spot and came to the pits for his first stop of the night the following lap. The team made an air pressure adjustment and went up one round on the track bar and sent him back on the track. Ambrose liked the changes and began to move forward even more in the field. By lap 60 he was in 17th place but still felt the car could be a little bit better. When the caution flew for debris on lap 76 he brought the car back to pit road, the team made another air pressure adjustment and also put a shock packer in the right front which cost them a couple of positions but really brought the car around to Ambrose’s liking. On the stop, the front tire carrier was brushed by the No. 4 of Kasey Kahne which caused him some bicep discomfort the rest of the night but did not cause him to lose control of the tire or delay the pit stop. The race resumed and the No. 9 started moving back forward again, working back to 17th place when the caution flew for Bobby Labonte spinning out of turn four.
The team then made a critical strategic decision which set them up for a successful evening. Having realized limited tire wear on the first two runs, they elected to make a two-tire stop under the caution which resulted in a gain of 11 spots and the chance to restart the race in sixth place. Ambrose lost a couple of spots on the restart but the two-tire call worked for him and he was still in seventh place by lap 120. With the temperatures up in the tires the car really started to work and he moved into the top five for the first time on lap 127. At that moment the team’s confidence was evident. Everyone on the crew was going about their duties with an air of confidence and a pep in their step. When Ambrose returned to pit road, the crew swarmed over the car and executed a flawless pit stop, getting him back into the fray and ultimately gaining him a position once the green-flag stops had played out.
Debris once again resulted in a caution flag on lap 172 which brought the Dewalt Tools Ford back to pit road for another stop which once again was a two-tire effort. The call put Ambrose in first place for the subsequent restart. The team did not make any adjustments or air pressure changes thanks to his comfort level with the car. On the restart Ambrose lost the top spot to Jamie McMurray, but his efforts at the front of the field were just beginning, and the confidence being exuded by the crew was growing with each lap. A couple of debris cautions and one for oil on the track flew over the next 20 laps but the team left the No. 9 on the track near the front of the field. The restart on lap 193 saw Ambrose mimic McMurray’s efforts from earlier in the race, sticking his car on the high side of the track and using the momentum to power to the lead. He held it for six laps before Matt Kenseth took the top position away from him.
Ambrose lingered in the top three until pit stops occurred under green again. He returned to the attention of his crew on lap 223 for four new skins. There were still no adjustments to the racecar and no changes in air pressure. On lap 234 the caution flew for Mike Bliss’s car stalling on the track. A handful of cars from the front runners came to pit lane but Ambrose led the contingent that stayed on the track. The green flew again on lap 238 but only lasted a lap before the cars of Paul Menard, Martin Truex, Jr. and Brian Vickers got together in turn two to bring out yet another caution. When the race restarted Kyle Busch made the inside line work to get in front of Ambrose and assume the point. However, the team still exuded confidence that they were going to contend for the win.
The race settled down and ran green with Ambrose starting the green flag sequence of stops this round, coming in for four tires on lap 273. The car was running so well that the team didn’t make any adjustments to the car or the tire pressures. Another caution flag flew on lap 283 for debris after most of the field had pitted. The few cars who had not come to pit road made stops under caution and then the race restarted on lap 287 with Busch leading Ambrose. Two laps later the car of David Starr made contact with the wall out of turn four, bringing out the ninth caution of the night. As the race restarted Ambrose spun his tires and lost a spot, but maintained his strong run and the team began to strategize for their run to the finish. After another couple of green flag laps, the caution flew again for Landon Cassill’s slide through the infield grass. A few of the cars near the back of the lead lap chose to pit while Ambrose held onto his third place position.
The race went back green on lap 302 but didn’t stay that way for long as Mark Martin, David Gilliland and Ryan Newman got wadded up together entering turn three just one lap later. The field circulated under caution for several laps before the pits opened and, when they did the No. 9 team felt that two tires had worked for them before and they made the call again, putting on two tires and heading back onto the track. After restarting in the top 10, everyone in a Dewalt uniform was feeling the time was ripe for them to move back to the front and contend for the win. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be and that is when the night that looked so promising for some three hours suddenly looked so bleak. As the race went back to green, Ambrose started to slide back in the field. He lfell to the 13th running position before Kyle Busch took an excursion through the infield on the front straight. Ambrose stayed out during the caution, unsure of what was occurring but, shortly after the race returned to green on lap 323, realized that he had a loose left rear tire. He attempted to hang onto the car but eventually succumbed to his fate and pitted on lap 337 to change tires. In the blink of an eye the confidence and swagger was gone, replaced by disbelief, anger and despair. A team that seemed so focused and so prepared for a run at a win looked like a team that was ready to implode.
With Ambrose back on the track but a lap down, the team looked over the tires to analyze what the problem was before discovering the elongated lug nut holes on the left rear which confirmed that it was the problem. The members of the team, once striding confidently around the pit box were now slump shouldered, bickering and looking as if they were harboring disdain for their jobs. The discussion turned to finding a spacer to put on the left rear tire if they had to come back in and more yelling and finger pointing followed. The team, who has been running better this season than the last few and seems genuinely poised for a breakout win, was now in disarray and seemed doomed to fail. Fortunately Busch spun again on lap 344 which afforded them the opportunity to receive the lucky dog and get back on the lead lap. They found a wheel spacer and, during their pit stop, affixed it to the left rear and got Ambrose back on the track, still on the lead lap. While things seemed to be looking up the team still looked as though the night was a total failure. Tires were being rolled around angrily in the pit box, people were yelling at each other and shaking their heads as if no one knew what they were doing. The race went back to green, but no one was watching the scoring monitor on the back of the pit box anymore. People shuffled around and seemed genuinely disinterested in participating in the rest of the evening’s activities.
The race went green for the majority of the rest of the event with Ambrose making some progress forward before seeming to stall out around the 17th to 18th position. Then, with three laps to go the window of opportunity opened again as Jimmie Johnson blew up and the caution flew for the 14th and final time of the night. With a dozen and a half cars on the lead lap the team, almost begrudgingly, decided to make a pit stop and see what they could do over the final few laps. Knowing that some cars were running low on fuel they brought Ambrose into the pits one more time, bolted on four fresh tires, filled the fuel cell, and sent him back into the race. The field came to the green on lap 401 and mayhem instantly ensued. Kasey Kahne ran out of gas as the green flag flew, bottling up the top line of cars and causing a mad scramble in turn one which resulted in Jeff Burton spinning to the inside of turn one. The race stayed green even as one car after another began to run out of fuel. On the last circuit Denny Hamlin lost power coming out of the second turn and race leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost steam on the back straight. What seemed like a lost opportunity ultimately turned into a sixth place finish for the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 9 Ford.
Racing can be a fickle and cruel sport with highs turning into lows in the blink of an eye. Different race teams handle those swings in fortune in different fashions. Some of them can look adversity in the face and turn it into a positive, salvaging the best finish possible. Other teams will take the slightest negative and turn it into a self implosion that totally ruins any chance of success. The difference between the two is difference between the teams that compete for championships vs. the teams that compete for mid-pack finishes. The No. 9 team is getting closer and closer to being one of the teams that competes for wins rather than mid-pack finishes, but Sunday showed that they still have obstacles to overcome. Hopefully the events that unfolded at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday night will go a long way towards making them into the winning kind of a team.
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