Commentary

Ambrose relishes role at Glen

Updated: August 9, 2014, 5:25 PM ET
By Brant James | ESPN.com

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Marcos Ambrose derives some measure of mischievous pleasure from it.

Some. Perhaps.

Because ultimately, he said, that his success at Watkins Glen International is deeply concerning to several of his Sprint Cup counterparts will matter little on Sunday (1 p.m. ET on ESPN and WatchESPN) unless he performs well again.

"It is gratifying, I guess," he said of his role as antagonist. "At the same time, I am a race car driver, so I flip that switch pretty quick. And I get frustrated why I haven't been as successful at other racetracks we go to as Watkins Glen."

This is about more than a particular driver's statistics and skill set making him a threat to win at a given track. That applies every week. This is about the fact that with five races left in the Sprint Cup regular season, with a victory a passage to the 16-driver Chase field, Ambrose is beyond worrisome for the five winless drivers clinging to postseason spots by points standings.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon
Mark Wilson/Getty ImagesJeff Gordon was flying pretty high after winning the 75th pole of his career Saturday at Watkins Glen.

To Kyle Larson, in the 15th spot; Greg Biffle, in the 16th; and Kasey Kahne and Austin Dillon, each one point behind, Ambrose is a season-altering variable at the most variable venue before the Chase.

Ambrose, a two-time V8 Supercar champion in his ninth and possibly final season in NASCAR, has seven wins in the top three NASCAR series, all on road courses. Six of those are at Watkins Glen after he pulled off the feat again Saturday for the fourth time in the Zippo 200. He won the Cup races in 2011 and 2012. Never better than 18th in the standings in six full Sprint Cup seasons, Ambrose is currently 17th and a seemingly insurmountable 49 points behind Biffle.

But a win would vault him into the field and jolt the winless cadre of drivers for whom advancing to the Chase on points remains plausible.

Ambrose began performing as such in qualifying on Saturday, setting a track record in the first group session and eventually earning the second starting spot for the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen. Jeff Gordon won his 75th career pole with a lap of 68.126 seconds at 129.466 mph around the 2.45-mile road course.

Ambrose's quarry, meanwhile, withered. Biffle qualified 28th, chatted briefly with team owner Jack Roush afterward, and declined interview requests.

Kahne, who qualified 30th, watched the final session from behind the pit wall with crew chief Kenny Francis. His race-winning Hendrick Motorsports teammates finished first, third (Jimmie Johnson) and seventh (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), and winless road-course threat AJ Allmendinger earned the sixth spot.

Admittedly "terrible" in the session, Kahne hoped his teammates' data and improved driving could improve his lot on Sunday. Kahne said he felt comfortable with his points situation, but the possibility of a road-course specialist vaulting past him with a win was understood.

"There's a few guys that could," he said, "so that's something you have to think about. But I think we're in a fine spot. I hope none of them win. I hope Jeff wins, or Jimmie or Dale. Those are the guys I want to win."

But if Ambrose or someone similar does win, Kahne said, it cannot change his approach to the remainder of the regular season.

"No. No," he said. "We just keep racing. We try to win. We try to get all the points we can and what else are you gonna do?"

Allmendinger, who has two Nationwide wins on road courses and was fourth in the Watkins Glen Sprint Cup race in 2010, said he doesn't think about his potential to impact the Chase field.

"We all know the format," said Allmendinger, who is 25th in driver points, "whether you are 25th in points right now or you are a guy like Kasey or Austin or somebody that is right on the edge.

"We just have to go out there, and I went into this weekend, this whole week and waking up this morning, thinking about the possibility of winning. But you can't get locked in on it."

An Ambrose win would also qualify the entire Richard Petty Motorsports lineup for the Chase, as teammate Aric Almirola earned entry with a victory in the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. The team expended one of four tests at the Glen last week, although foul weather forced a compression of activities to one afternoon. Even with his recent success here, Ambrose said, a refresher was helpful that "ticked a few boxes" because of a new Sprint Cup aerodynamics package this season.

"Not more or less to my liking but it will be a little bit different," he said. "The brake zones are slightly compressed, which is going to put more heat in the brakes, which could be an issue for some. Fuel mileage could be a bit different, too, because we're going faster.

"When we go faster we burn more fuel. There's another factor to think about as well: The tires are similar to last year but the grip through the center of the corner, downforce . . . you might see guys really struggle with their tire grip on the longer run."

Ambrose -- and the rest of the field -- will be going faster, but he won't be going harder. Though he has anticipated this opportunity since the new points were announced in the offseason, he had hoped he wouldn't need this lifeline to qualify for his first postseason, that he could win elsewhere first.

"Every week I get in my race car I try 100 percent and I can't do any more than that, so I sleep easy at night knowing I put my best effort forward," he said. "It's funny to say, 'Oh, this week is a better week to win, so you gotta try harder.' Well that's rubbish because I try my best every week.

"It's just that Watkins Glen has been a good place for me and it really is in my niche. Road racing is what I grew up doing so the results have really flowed well there, for whatever reason. But I can't try harder. I can't put any more pressure on myself than I what I really do."

All the pressure this weekend is being applied to certain other drivers.

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He once induced Danica Patrick into a dance number from Moulin Rouge by saying the word "Switzerland." It's been pretty interesting so far.

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