This past weekend’s Sprint Cup and Nationwide series races at Watkins Glen International were both won by drivers who have struggled at times this season after posting relatively solid numbers in 2009.
Last year, Marcos Ambrose finished 17th in points in what was basically a coming out of sorts, clearly one of the strongest non-Chase contenders in the second half of the season. However, this year, the No. 47 car has been snakebit. There was the early engine failure in the Daytona 500, followed by overheating issues in Fontana that resulted in the team potentially staring down having to qualify on speed after five races. Five DNFs for crashes, including three in a row (Dover, Charlotte and Pocono) at one point have effectively derailed what could have been a promising sophomore season behind the wheel.
It hasn’t been all bad, though, as Ambrose dominated Saturday’s Zippo 200 to go to victory lane for the third year in a row in the Nationwide Series. On Sunday, Ambrose probably had the best car in the middle third of the race during the Cup event. However, bad restarts and substandard handling in the last run of the race dropped him to a third-place finish. After Sunday, Ambrose lies 26th in Sprint Cup points (he was 28th entering Sunday’s race), disappointing albeit only nine positions lower than where he was one year ago.
During his post-race press conference, Marcos talked about how this was a good weekend for him with the victory on Saturday and third on Sunday. It would apparently go a long way towards locking down his plans for 2011, a future that remains unclear after his surprising decision to leave the No. 47 team and his contract at the end of the season.
However, some writers have gone as far as to say that Sunday’s Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen was a must-win for Ambrose, or as close to one as you can get in NASCAR. It was likely his last chance at a potential victory to impress sponsors and potential suitors for 2011, as the No. 47’s oval-track performance is just not good enough this year to think an upset’s in the cards. However, I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a “must-win” race for a driver to keep their career in a certain series. NASCAR is not the NFL, where coaches can be given ultimatums saying, “You must reach the Super Bowl or else you’re fired!” like Tony Dungy got in Tampa Bay. No one works well under that kind of pressure. However, if Ambrose severely underperformed on Sunday with a perfectly capable car, then, the doubters would have had a stronger case.
Do I think that Ambrose has done enough to stay in the Sprint Cup Series for 2011 and the foreseeable future? Yes. At the very least, his friendly demeanor since coming to the United States has gained him fans, and being able to attract a fanbase relatively quickly is beneficial to acquiring sponsors. At the very least, Marcos has an overwhelming amount of support on his side. Before Sunday’s race, the PA announcer at Watkins Glen International asked fans whether they would like to see Ambrose stay in NASCAR for next season. There was a resounding cheer from the crowd. Part of this sentiment is due to his generally friendly demeanor, but a lot of it is due to the Tasmanian’s aggressive driving style, something fans simply don’t want to lose in a world where single-file racing has taken control.
This attitude is a bit different from what Ambrose was like in Australia’s V8 Supercars, though. There, he was a little more… business-like and a little more quick to anger. Probably the most obvious display of anger from Ambrose in the V8 Supercars came during the Super Cheap Auto Bathurst 1000 in 2005. Right after a restart with 17 laps to go in the 161-lap race, Ambrose was hit by Greg Murphy on the run up to The Cutting, a sharp, uphill left that marks the beginning of the climb up Mount Panorama.
Ambrose’s No. 1 Pirtek Ford spun hard into the concrete wall, climbing it before coming back down and creating a near total track blockage. This wreck, replays, and a confrontation on-track between Ambrose and Murphy can be seen at this link. Leigh Diffey (currently with SPEED) and Neil Crompton have the call for Australia’s Network Ten. Also worth mentioning, Ambrose got black-flagged for not wearing a head sock under his helmet during the race. It was probably the main reason why he was there in the first place….
Anyways, since Ambrose’s future is still a question mark, the only thing that Marcos can do from here to the end of the season is to run to the absolute best of his and the No. 47 team’s abilities. Also, he should try to cut down on the number of incidents in the remaining 14 races. Do I think Ambrose will win one of these remaining events? Probably not. Do I think that Ambrose can be consistently competitive, putting up top-10 finishes and maybe a top five or two down the stretch? You bet I do; and that, in the end, should be enough to keep him in NASCAR.
Juan Pablo Montoya is in a similar predicament to Ambrose, although different in that at least he knows where he’ll be in 2011. Last year, Montoya and the No. 42 team were the revelation of the Chase. Four consecutive top fives to start put Montoya in third, 58 points behind Jimmie Johnson. Then came the restart at Charlotte (then-Lowe’s Motor Speedway) in October, when Montoya was hit from behind. The damage ruined his night, effectively ended that championship run and killed all momentum: additional problems dropped Montoya to an eighth-place finish in the standings by Homestead.
Yet despite the fizzle out at the very end of the season, this year was predicted to be a coming out party for Montoya, where he could channel the 1999 or 2000 version of himself from CART, take multiple victories and contend for the Sprint Cup. However, it just has not worked out that way.
Montoya’s cars have been fast this season, there is no disputing that. However, DNFs have seriously curtailed his challenge to… do much of anything this year. A decent 10th-place finish in the Daytona 500 was a good start, but then engine failure took him out at Fontana. Las Vegas saw Montoya and Jamie McMurray collide, resulting in Montoya backing into the wall and collecting his second straight 37th-place finish.
Another substandard run to 26th at Bristol ensued, leaving Montoya already looking at a very difficult road simply just to qualify for the Chase. Martinsville brought more problems and a 36th-place finish, while a great run in Phoenix was followed up by a DNF in Texas after getting caught up in the big crash. You get the picture… seemingly every good run has been followed up by a disaster. This is why Montoya entered Sunday’s Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen in 21st position in points.
The victory boosted Montoya to 19th in the standings, but he is 205 points behind the Chase cutoff with four races to go. However, neither Montoya nor crew chief Brian Pattie are sweating that fact. They’ve already been operating under the auspices of not making the Chase for weeks.
Since they’re out of the playoffs, last year’s strategy of bringing the car home and maximizing points is out the window. Now, Montoya will be far more aggressive than he was last year at this time. The goal is to win multiple races, and if that isn’t in the cards, to finish as high as possible every week. This means aggressive setups and aggressive on-track tactics. It doesn’t mean that Juan Pablo’s going to use a dirty trick or two in order to win, like Dick Dastardly tried to do all the time on Wacky Races and constantly failed to cash in on, but it looks like he’s going to be more than willing to move a slower car out of the way. Could Montoya take some wins away from the Chasers during the Chase later this year? Sure, he can. Could he actually break into the top 12 of the old points system by the end of the season? Quite possibly… although it won’t mean anything until next year.
“I want to be, you know, the Hendricks, those guys,” Pattie said after the race. “I want to be consistent week in, week out, no matter if we are at a half-mile racetrack, mile-and-a-half, road course or a speedway.”
Getting a win under their belt is half the battle; now, the trick is to start doing it every week. And as we’ve seen with these two foreign stars this season, simply clocking in a good finish while bringing the car home in one piece is far easier said than done.