NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fantasy Friday: Ambrose’s chase of Chase spot a chance to break stereotypes

Often times in sports, after an athlete has three or four seasons of experience, we make evaluations and sometimes rightly or sometimes wrongly think, this person, as an athlete, is who he or she is.

We have a past performance to base our current thoughts and future assumptions on. And that’s not all bad. We need something to go on.

However, who’s not to say that athletes can evolve their talents and become even better, or stop working and become worse?

One of those perceptions in NASCAR falls on some of the road-racing specialists. For a few years now, Marcos Ambrose has been considered one of the road racing experts. He confirmed that assumption with the second-road win of his NASCAR Sprint Cup career Sunday at Watkins Glen. But the deal with Ambrose is this: He drives the entire schedule for Richard Petty Motorsports. So, he’s been working to shake the stigma that he’s a good driver only on road courses as he is in his fourth full season of Sprint Cup competition. His highest finish in the final points standings was 19th for JTG Daugherty Racing in 2009.

And if he really wants to put that road-racer only idea to rest, he’s got four races left in NASCAR’s regular season to prove it. Ambrose put himself in position to make NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, the Chase for the Championship, with Sunday’s win. If he can win one of these next four races, he could take one of the two wild-card qualifying spots for the Chase. The top 10 in points are guaranteed a spot, while the two drivers 11th through 20th in points with the most wins will secure the final two spots. Kasey Kahne is the lone driver outside the top 10 with two wins.

That leaves a big scramble for the final spot.

Ambrose sits 44 points behind current final wild-card qualifier Ryan Newman. So, Ambrose’s best shot will be to earn another win. He has six top 10 finishes this season, including a ninth in the June race at Michigan, where he started on the pole. At the other three tracks he has one top five and three top 10s at Bristol, one top 10 at Atlanta and one top five and two top 10s at Richmond, the final race of the regular season.

“Definitely the best track for us coming up would be Michigan, after having such good speed there in the first race,” Ambrose said on a conference call Tuesday. “Then I traditionally go pretty well at Bristol as well. I’ve had a lot of really good runs there. Though I have yet to get a victory around Bristol, I feel that’s a good place for us to potentially surprise a lot of folks and come through for another win.”

Ambrose’s average finish on road courses is 7.4, that’s no surprise. But at all other types of tracks, his best average finish is 19th on short tracks.

So there it is. The road course numbers don’t lie.

But the next four weeks will be Ambrose’s chance to show us that the numbers on the other types of courses don’t entirely tell the truth either.

THIS WEEK’S PICKS

The Sprint Cup Series heads to Michigan for the second and final time this season with a 1 p.m. Sunday race on ESPN. We will we see a repeat winner here?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – He broke his four-year 143-race winless streak here in June, so it would be difficuilt to not pick him here as he’s got two wins at Michigan.

Jimmie Johnson – It’s hard to believe he’s never won at this place. He does have four top-five finishes and he could very well get the winning thing taking care of Sunday.

Greg Biffle – He’s been quiet lately, but there he sits second in the points standings going to a place where the Roush cars typically perform well. He’s got two wins here and could make it three.

Carl Edwards – Last year’s runnerup desperately needs a win to have a shot to make the Chase and this is a good place for him to do it. He has two wins at Michigan and an average finish of 8.4 at the track.

Tony Stewart – He has just one win at Michigan, but 11 top fives. He’s still trying to become the first driver to win four races this season.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda – It was difficult to not pick Matt Kenseth this week. He’s third in the points, with two wins at Michigan and an average finish of 9.4. I may regret not making him one of my top five.

ACCOUNTABILITY GROUP

Here’s a look at how last week’s picks fared at Watkins Glen.

Tony Stewart – 19th. Was running second until he spun late in the race, putting him well back in the field.

Marcos Ambrose – 1st. There were high expectations for him on the road course, and he didn’t disappoint in that thrilling final lap.

Jeff Gordon – 21st. He was poised for a top 10 finish until the final lap oil-aided slip and slide show.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 28th. Also poised for a top 10 finish until late issues put him well pack in the pack.

Kurt Busch – 31st.. Early mechanical issues ended any chance he had of having a good day.

Here’s a look at my results after 22 races and 110 picks.

13 wins

38 top fives

51 top 10s

Grade for the week: C. Saved only by having the race winner. It wasn’t that all of my picks weren’t fast, it’s just that they ran into trouble at some point, pushing them back into the field.

One last thing: With Jimmie Johnson now in the points lead, he has been in first place in the points at least one week in each of the last nine seasons, the longest stretch for any driver since 1975.

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