Ambrose, Keselowski fight to finish
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- They had a tractor pull at Watkins Glen International on Sunday.
It looked a lot like any other road-course race for 89 laps, but the way it ended is what counted, and will be long remembered for the complete chaos that broke out.
And it seems somehow fitting that on one of NASCAR's most picturesque tracks, surrounded by rolling farmland and vineyards, winner Marcos Ambrose and second-place Brad Keselowski would plow their way to the most exciting finish NASCAR has seen in a long time.
As Keselowski told ESPN just after the race ended, "That's how racing should be."
And he was the first loser.
Dale Earnhardt's legendary "Pass In The Grass?" How about three drivers -- Kyle Busch was leading when the final lap began -- exchanging the lead in the grass, the dirt, the pavement, some gravel and, oh yeah, an oil slick.
Yes, oil on the track -- and, according to multiple drivers, plenty of it.
"I was the first one to slip in the oil and it was just getting worse and worse," Ambrose said. "You could tell the car was staying out [on the track] because the oil was moving around the racetrack and you just take your chances.
"You've got to commit at that point in the race and it was great racing with Kyle and Brad. They're the two best guys to race. It's just awesome fun and that's the way racing should be."
As the oil became a factor -- some drivers said they noticed it with two laps to go -- Ambrose slid in Turn 1 and gave up second place to Keselowski. Then as Keselowski closed on Busch, Busch's car slid and Keselowski's car bumped into Busch's, sending the No. 18 into a spin. That set up the frantic finish as Keselowski lost grip and Ambrose was able to catch up as they dueled to the final turn before Ambrose pulled away down the home straightaway to the finish line.
"Just fun," Keselowski said. "We leaned on each other, we bumped each other. We were both cool about it and didn't dump each other.
"This is what I think racing in NASCAR is supposed to be, hard-nosed going for the win, bumping and rubbing without any of that intentional wrecking nonsense. Marcos gets that. I enjoy racing with him."
For his part, Busch apparently had a different take on "the way racing should be," but not one he was readily willing to share.
He bolted from his car after the race and headed straight to the NASCAR hauler, likely with two questions on his mind: 1) Why wasn't a caution flag thrown with oil down on the track? and 2) Why, when he was bumped from behind and taken out as the race leader, wasn't Keselowski black-flagged for it?
And how did that go? His answer to ESPN's Marty Smith and other reporters when he left the hauler was terse.
"I have nothing good to say," he said.
And that's understandable. Busch needed this victory -- any victory -- desperately as he battles to make the Chase. He's on the outside looking in with one victory, in the same boat as Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano and, now, Ambrose.
And the wild-card race is heating up. Those famous words "if the regular season ended today" show a shake-up for the 12th and final spot.
Kasey Kahne looks relatively secure sitting in 11th place with two victories, the only wild-card hopeful with two, but Ryan Newman moved up to 13th place just behind winless Carl Edwards and would get the final spot with one win by virtue of being six points ahead of Busch in 14th.
Jeff Gordon, who was in the final spot after last week's win at Pocono, dropped to 15th thanks to a last-lap spin Sunday that turned a seventh-place run into 21st. But he is only 10 points behind Newman. Well behind that pack are Ambrose (44 points behind Newman) and Logano (57 points back).
But every driver from Newman to Logano knows that one more win could get them in the Chase. And Ambrose likes his chances as early as next week at Michigan.
"We won the pole there and ran in the top five most of the day last time," he said of the race in June in which he finished ninth. "There's no reason why we can't go there and surprise them again."
But all the talk of Chase wild cards may be moot. Casting a long shadow over the proceedings after Watkins Glen -- at least to those who care about the points lead -- is the towering figure of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
We won the pole there and ran in the top five most of the day last time. There's no reason why we can't go there and surprise them again.” -- Marcos Ambrose on next week's race at Michigan
Yes, he's back on top of the standings after finishing third Sunday, and with three victories so far this season he would start the Chase up front.
He's been there before, often, and he made it clear he likes being up front at this point in the season.
"Excited to be leading the points," he said. "Whoever the team is, I really believe they get some much-needed experience with the pressure of the points lead late in the season.
"It's just different than leading at any other point in time. I look forward to the pressure on my team and myself."
His points lead came at the expense of teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who said he overdrove his car into a spin late in the race, costing him what looked to be a top-10 finish and relegating him to 28th.
But the day really did belong to Ambrose and Keselowski and the back-and-forth fray for the victory.
Ambrose admitted that without the oil on the track, he probably could not have reached Busch, so he figured he got lucky.
Keselowski said he thinks Busch understands that the oil played a big part in the contact between their two cars that set Busch back to a seventh-place finish.
And for Ambrose's part, he's just glad to put a long string of disappointments this season behind him and really have something to shoot for the next four weeks, maybe even with Lady Luck on his side.
"She's been frowning on me all year," he said, "so it's nice to get the change."