Race Weekend Central

The Ambrose Ambush: A Test of NASCAR Man And Machine At Watkins Glen

For starters, let me say that in my time covering the sport, I have never been a big fan of stock car racing on road courses. That said, _Holy cow!_ What a finish and what a race on Sunday at Watkins Glen. The lead changed hands at least twice and probably four times on the final lap. Some of the best road course racers in the business (Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch) wrecked on their own while the sport’s up-and-coming right-turn talent, Marcos Ambrose snookered them all. Add in the drama of the Wild Card race, the run for Chase bonus points plus the risky trend of trying to make race cars lighter and you ended up with a mixture of close competition that NASCAR fans will be talking about for weeks to come.

Racing started off over 100 years ago as a test of man and machine. Drivers could go out and set blistering paces but their cars would fail. Other drivers would run conservatively and make their equipment last until the end of the race. In the last century, the equipment has advanced to the point where there are virtually no mechanical failures among the top-level teams for the vast majority of the races. Even with the advent of fuel injection and Ethanol-blended gas, the Cup series has seen a limited number of problems in 2012… until this weekend. Running a stock car over the curbs on a road course took a heavy toll, with several top contenders cast aside by extended abuse. Kurt Busch had a wheel fall off of his car, while Juan Pablo Montoya broke a lower A-arm on his left front suspension. Joey Logano broke a shock mount. Dave Blaney had a suspension failure.

Every week, we listen to drivers and crew chiefs talk about making the race cars lighter and lighter. Granted, the car still must meet a minimum weight, but the lighter the teams can make the actual car, the more weight they have to place wherever they want to, allowing them to constantly lower the center of gravity, which makes a race car handle better. This past weekend, though would seem to indicate the lightening of the cars might be going a little too far. Making parts lighter and lighter, welding parts with less material, minimizing the amount of material utilized to make parts all has the potential to have one side effect — weakness. While the teams won’t admit it, and it probably can’t be proven without taking the cars to an independent investigative body, it would certainly appear that the lightening of the cars is translating into fragile failures, mechanical nightmares which manifested themselves throughout the Sunday race at the Glen.

But that wasn’t the only surprise. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have more Cup victories at the Glen than any other drivers in the Series, combined but spent the day making a series of uncharacteristic mistakes. During the race, Tony Stewart went for a spin off of the final corner, a failed come-from-behind effort after a pit road violation took him out of contention. That left him 19th in the final running order. Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon rebounded from a bad day and was poised to have a top-10 finish when he made a move on the last turn of the last lap and lost control of his car, ultimately coming home in 21st. The test of man and machine can sometimes get the best of the man.

As the race laps wound down and the white flag flew, Kyle Busch was out in front and looking as though he’d be able to make one more lap to seal his second victory of the season and most likely a spot in the Chase via Wild Card. Unfortunately for Busch, and Gordon, the car of Bobby Labonte was circling the track experiencing a mechanical failure that was causing his car to leak a lubricant on the track. As the field reached Turn 1, Busch swung wide, opening the door for Brad Keselowski to move to his inside. Through Turn 2, Busch came down onto Keselowski and ended up spinning into the guardrail. Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose proceeded on and did some agricultural racing through the Bus Stop. The oil that encompassed the entire track caused Keselowski to go wide out of the Bus Stop but Ambrose went wider. As they entered the following straightaway, Ambrose zeroed in on Keselowski’s back bumper and ultimately moved him to take over the point. Just not for long – Keselowski caught back up, pushing the No. 9 into the next corner, down into the runoff and briefly regaining the top spot. But Ambrose rejoined the race, kept composure and was beside Keselowski coming through the last turn. Both cars slid on Labonte’s spilled fluids, slamming to the checkers sideways like on go karts in a finish that made every fan in the stands take notice. By a nose, Ambrose made it to the home straight first, claiming the win and thrusting himself in the middle of the Wild Card race.

Keselowski had nothing to lose by going for the win. He is comfortably in the Chase and he is tied for the most bonus points at this point in time. Another victory would allow him to start off the 10-race playoff with the point lead. For Ambrose, the Chase is a long shot but his only chance was to score the win at Watkins Glen. Now that he has that in the book, the possibility is there for the No. 9 team to put together a strong run on an intermediate track and steal a win, and a Chase berth, from the other drivers competing for the Wild Card.

Interestingly, Gordon’s last corner spin resulted in Busch passing him in the race for the second Wild Card spot with just four races left in the “regular season.” Now, Busch only has Ryan Newman between himself and the Chase. Busch has been strong at Bristol and Richmond over the recent years which should give him confidence heading into the last month of the “regular season.” Gordon has run well at Bristol but has only scored one top 10 at the track since the Fall of 2009. His best opportunity is going to be Atlanta, where he just won last season on Labor Day after the race was rain delayed.

Right now, there are five drivers who have a single win that are not in the top 10 in points and competing for the Wild Card. Curiously, Carl Edwards, who does not have a victory, has managed to claw his way back to a 43-point deficit from 10th. If he can somehow manage to overtake Denny Hamlin, that would leave two drivers with two wins outside of the top 10 and the drivers with one would be on the outside looking in. The Wild Card is going to give people a lot to talk about over the next four races, provided Carl Edwards doesn’t spoil it.

In the aftermath of the Watkins Glen race, there were a myriad of responses to the events that unfolded over the final lap of the race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon both felt that NASCAR should have thrown a caution flag due to the excessive amount of oil on the track. Ambrose, naturally, felt that the correct decision was made, allowing the drivers to settle it amongst themselves. Kyle Busch left the property merely adding he had nothing positive to say. Keselowski and Ambrose both felt that the end of the race was how racing ought to be, drivers bumping, rubbing, gouging and pushing, but not wrecking the opponent as the race is settled on the track. That kind of action doesn’t occur on Intermediate tracks or Superspeedways these days; that means, outside of Bristol and Martinsville, The Glen and Sonoma are the only places fans are going to have the opportunity to see it.

The final lap at The Glen was a test of man and his ability. The aerodynamics of the car weren’t a factor and the grip of the tires was out the window. It all came down to the guts and ability of the men behind the wheel and Marcos Ambrose kicked, punched, gouged and rooted his way to the checkered flag first. A couple more races like that and I just might start liking road courses after all.

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