With all of the spotlight on the winner-take-all race for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Marcos Ambrose probably won’t receive much attention in what will most likely be his final Sprint Cup race. He’ll run 29th, slip into the shadows and a year from now we’ll be trying to remember his name.
Was it Marcus Ericsson? No, he’s a Swedish Formula 1 driver.
Ambrose’s quiet exit will be fitting. Much like Austin Powers, Ambrose is an international man of mystery. He’s quite possibly the greatest road course driver to ever suit up in a Sprint Cup car, but he doesn’t have a single oval victory to show for himself. He contradicts the NASCAR record book, which tells us that the great road course drivers are guys who can flat out get it done anywhere because they are some of the best wheelmen in the world.
Here is the list of drivers with three or more Sprint Cup road course wins:
Driver RC wins Oval wins
Jeff Gordon 9 91
Tony Stewart 7 48
Rusty Wallace 6 55
Bobby Allison 6 85
Richard Petty 6 200
Ricky Rudd 6 23
Darrell Waltrip 5 84
Tim Richmond 5 13 (over final 6 years of career)
Dan Gurney 5 5 (road course specialist)
David Pearson 4 105
Mark Martin 4 40
Ernie Irvan 3 15
Geoff Bodine 3 18
Tim Flock 3 39
Cale Yarborough 3 84
Kyle Busch 3 29
The list is a who’s who of NASCAR legends. Ambrose isn’t on it, but if he had raced more than six Sprint Cup seasons, he would’ve been. The list shows that top-of-the-line road course talent converts to oval success every time, so why didn’t Ambrose’s talent ever convert? What was he missing?
That’s the mystery behind Ambrose. How could someone so damn masterful on a road course — the hardest discipline a driver can face — not figure out a 1.5-mile oval? It would be like meeting a sprinter who couldn’t jog.
Ambrose hasn’t exactly been equipped to be a multi-time champion. Driving for JTG-Daugherty Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports and competing with the super teams probably feels like bringing a plastic knife to a gun fight. Still, for all the talent Ambrose has, shouldn’t he have been able to make up for some of the difference and at least challenge for a few wins at ovals? He never did. Ambrose ran in the top 5, but not once did he truly challenge for an oval win.
If you told me that would be the case after his rookie season in 2009, I would’ve called you crazy. With a startup team and no teammates, he surprised everyone by placing 18th in the standings that year. That was one spot ahead of Kevin Harvick and seven in front of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. It was a monumental overachievement. He spent another year at JTG-Daugherty before he earned his chance to move up the Cup totem pole with RPM in Kasey Kahne’s old ride. The No. 9 team wasn’t capable of competing for the championship, but Kahne proved they could win races.
The team hasn’t won on an oval since Kahne left. Ambrose picked up his first win at Watkins Glen in 2011 and also posted five top fives and 12 top 10s. The next year, his top 10s dropped to eight, but he won at Watkins Glen again in one of the most memorable last laps in NASCAR history. Unfortunately, Ambrose has only regressed in the last two years; his average finish and point standing have dropped. At the first Chase race at Chicago on Sunday, he was so off the pace, I thought he might pull over and ask for directions back to Australia. He finished two laps down in 25th.
Was it age – 38 – that halted his development? Or more likely, was it his organization? RPM has had more turnover since Ambrose has been there than a Smithfield meatpacking plant. In 2012, Ambrose put together the best four-race stretch of his career when he placed 10th at Pocono, first at Watkins Glen, fifth at Michigan and fifth at Bristol under Todd Parrott’s leadership. Three races later, RPM moved Parrott over to work with Almirola and Ambrose’s performance plummeted. There have been quite a few head-scratching decisions made there in recent years.
Maybe it wasn’t the team’s fault, though, and Ambrose just wasn’t that good. Was he nothing more than a more likeable Robby Gordon or Juan Pablo Montoya, drivers who showed brilliance at road courses, but fell short everywhere else?
Ambrose’s 25 victories in 78 starts in Australian V8 Supercars, where he’ll race next season, prove there is greatness in him. Maybe the Cup car just never suited his driving style. We’ll find out exactly how much he has left next year when he drives for Roger Penske’s V8 Supercar team.
What will you remember about Ambrose’s short Cup career? His mean right hook? His stall on the hill at Sonoma? His infectious smile? That 2012 finish at Watkins Glen? His road course mastery?
I’ll remember him for his mastery and his mystery. I’ll think back and wonder what it was that kept such a talented driver from becoming great in Sprint Cup.