The Frontstretch: Marcos Ambrose's Pit Strategy Doomed His Chances at Watkins Glen by Phil Allaway -- Tuesday August 11, 2009

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Marcos Ambrose came into Watkins Glen International for Monday’s Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen as a legitimate favorite to win the event. His No. 47 had been the quickest in both practice sessions on Saturday, and he had a lot of confidence coming into the race. He thought that Monday might have been the day that he could have picked up his first career Sprint Cup victory.

However, it was not meant to be. Why, you ask?

There were a couple of factors that hurt Ambrose on Sunday.

First of all, the weather conditions were different on Monday as compared to Sunday. The temperature was quite a bit warmer, the air a lot stickier, and the sun just blared down onto the track. This made the surface quite slippery, something Ambrose admitted himself during the press conference.

Instead of spending his day up front, Marcos Ambrose was forced to fight hard for his second-place finish after some strange pit strategy backfired and left him mired in midpack for a large portion of the race.

“We were very fast in practice,” Ambrose said. “Unfortunately…the track was hotter and slicker than what we wanted. We just didn’t quite have the grip we had on Saturday.”

Most importantly, the team left their pit strategy during the first caution up to Marcos when the team essentially could not agree on a strategy. I was down there in Ambrose’s pit at the time, and ESPN’s Vince Welch was also down there, attempting to get some information through Marcos’ PR representative.
Marcos’ crew chief, Frankie Kerr, eventually left the decision up to Marcos, even though he believed that they should pit if the leaders (Kurt Busch, and Denny Hamlin at the time) did. But when those two decided to pit, Ambrose chose to stay out, saying on the radio that “we’re going to stick to our [original] strategy.” This effectively forced the team’s hand for the rest of the race, as the No. 47 wound up being one of just a handful of cars that stayed on the track.

So, while not pitting put Ambrose in the lead, it wasn’t an advantage he’d be able to hold after going off-sequence. Kurt Busch passed Ambrose briefly, then Marcos charged back past just before pitting.

It is notable that the pit strategy that Marcos and the JTG Daugherty Racing team employed has worked in the past. Examples of this are Geoff Bodine’s final Cup Series victory in 1996 and Jeff Gordon’s victory in 1998. However, in both of those cases, the races had long green flag runs that allowed those drivers to fully realize their strategies. Perhaps Ambrose could have had his work out if the race went caution free.

Unfortunately, life just doesn’t work that way. Ambrose’s green flag pit stop was a few laps after the restart from the first caution on lap 29. This effectively dropped Ambrose back to the rear of the field. From there, Ambrose raced up through the pack before the third caution flew on lap 42 for the crash involving Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Reed Sorenson. Ambrose decided to pit during that caution for four tires and fuel — the final time he’d have fresh Goodyear tires all day. After the restart on lap 54, Ambrose pitted the No. 47 under green for fuel only.

Ambrose admitted after the race a lack of fresh rubber was critical as he tried to run down Stewart at the finish.

“I think that was the difference between first and second this afternoon, was just the extra laps I did on my tires, probably eight or ten more laps than Tony,” Ambrose said in the post-race press conference.

Despite these issues on Monday, Ambrose was still able to bring the No. 47 Little Debbie Snacks Toyota home in second place, a career best finish for Marcos. And even though he missed his chance at winning on Sunday, he was still happy with the run.

When asked whether second place was considered frustrating to him, Marcos replied, “No, no. Not at all.” He concluded the statement by simply saying that the team would learn from their mistakes today and “hopefully go one more spot up the sheet.”

With the determination of Ambrose, this would be easily possible for the 2010 Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen. But you wonder what would have happened if different strategy had left him up front for the duration.

Contact Phil Allaway

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