Race Weekend Central

The Importance of Being Ambrose

The on-track accomplishments of Marcos Ambrose over the past month have been nothing short of inspiring. While always considered a threat to win on road courses (which he did in a wild, dirt-throwing, metal-bending show of last-lap fireworks at Watkins Glen a few weeks ago), Ambrose is also proving to be a worthy contender on other kinds of racetracks, as well. His recent back-to-back, fifth-place finishes at Michigan and Bristol demonstrated his talents on both superspeedways and short tracks – finishes that had him in-the-mix with Sprint Cup notables such as Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

If you think my mention of these three Hendrick Motorsports drivers was based solely on their 2012 accomplishments, think again; the fact that Ambrose can run consistently against drivers from what is likely the sport’s deepest and best-funded operation only amplifies his late-summer successes. While Ambrose will have to claw his way over the next couple of weeks to try and earn a wild card position in this year’s Chase, there’s little doubt – in my mind, at least – that the “Tasmanian Devil” at Richard Petty Motorsports will have drivers checking their mirrors well into 2013.

King Richard appears to see Ambrose as a key bargaining chip in his dealings with the Ford Motor Company. Immediately following Ambrose’s dramatic win at Watkins Glen earlier this month, Petty went looking for Ford representatives with a contract in hand, hoping to seal-a-deal for next year. Of course, it was the thrilling finish that prompted Richard Petty to go hunting, but such an excursion would not have been possible if it hadn’t been for Ambrose slipping-and-sliding his way past Brad Keselowski with one turn to go.

To Richard Petty, that Sunday afternoon along the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York seemed the perfect time to settle matters for 2013 once-and-for-all. “I seen some of the Ford people there today”, “King Richard told a reporter after the event. “I told them, `Me and Marcos won the race.’ I had the contract in my pocket. I was going to let them sign it right there. I don’t think it went over too good.”

With a win and two fifth place runs in the last four faces – and a 10th place run to boot – Marcos Ambrose may have helped rekindle Ford’s fleeting love affair with Richard Petty Motorsports. Why is he not driving the No. 43 again?

Maybe the reluctance of “the Ford people” was because of the whirlwind aftermath of what has become immortalized as a “classic” finish in NASCAR history. There were certainly enough players on stage to generate confusion…. everyone from a frustrated Kyle Busch to an exhausted-yet-excited Brad Keselowski to the smiling man standing in Victory Lane – RPM’s very own Marcos Ambrose.

For all of the attention Keselowski is getting for races-well-run, Marcos Ambrose has also positioned himself to be noticed. This is important stuff to consider when sponsorships are tight and a new season is not-too-far on the horizon….

Signing on the dotted line to secure a future with Richard Petty Motorsports and Marcos Ambrose seems to be a no-brainer from FoMoCo’s perspective. It’s good to take advantage of a positive vibe whenever one is present, and this is sometimes difficult to achieve from both a sports and/or a corporate angle (and these are often one-and-the-same). So far in 2012, Marcos Ambrose and the Stanley Tools No. 9 Ford have done quite a lot of what – on the surface – appears to be very little.

Sure, it seems foolhardy to build a secure corporate future around a single win, but consider the sidelights to RPM’s Watkins Glen highlight…. At Michigan this past June, Marcos Ambrose posted the fastest qualifying lap in the last quarter-century of NASCAR competition. Okay, so it was on a newly-paved track known for high speeds. And yes, teams were given an additional day to lay down some rubber and get their cars dialed in a little more for the weekend. All of that is true.

What’s also true is that Ambrose turned a lap of better than 203 MPH and earned his first career Sprint Cup pole position. Not since the glory days of Awesome Bill Elliott and his No. 9 Coors Ford did NASCAR Nation get to see such a lap.

A week later, Ambrose scored his second career pole with a fast lap at Sonoma. I know…. Sonoma is a road course. But a pole position is a pole position no matter where it’s been earned. Ambrose was already widely recognized as a road warrior, but he was also gaining a reputation as someone who could handle the pressures of qualifying.

For more about handling pressure, see “final lap of 2012 Cup race at Watkins Glen”. That’s cross-indexed under “Ambrose, Marcos”….

Not that a single victory can turn the tides of fortune for a driver or a team. Think about the trials and tribulations of Trevor Bayne on the heels of his storybook win in the 2011 Daytona 500. Just when it seemed that a powerful corporate sponsor might walk through the front doors at Wood Brothers Racing, nothing of any real financial substance materialized. Such is the case in a challenging economy where corporate survival trumps corporate generosity. Richard Petty Motorsports is also facing possible sponsorship woes for next season, but positive performance now is the curative for what might be a small budget later.

Ambrose’s recent one-month average of 5.25 per race – which includes one win, three consecutive top-fives (a career first), and four consecutive top-tens – shows that the Australian driver and his team are poised for a competitive breakthrough. All teams hope for such an event, and all teams work as hard as they can to try and achieve one, but such turns in a career are often elusive. For every Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson there’s a Dave Marcis or a Brett Bodine – a talented driver whose competitive record falls short of their innate skills. Becoming consistently fast or successful is difficult, and sometimes time-consuming to the point where even the most devoted of sponsors is forced to scoop up their money and walk away.

Marcos Ambrose seems ready to break through in Sprint Cup competition because he’s exhibiting two essential qualities needed for motorsports success: confidence and consistency. Pole positions and race wins breed confidence, but so does being able to run all day each week. Thus far in 2012, Ambrose has completed 97.3% of the laps run in twenty-four races. Two DNFs have marred an otherwise solid year of hard racing (Ambrose’s RPM teammate Aric Almirola has had a relatively solid season in this regard, as well, having completed 95.4% of laps with two DNFs in the No. 43 Ford). Such attention to determination is necessary if a driver hopes to make the competitive leap from pretender to contender.

This is how Brad Keselowski made the jump in his breakthrough season last year. Following his injury at Road Atlanta, Keselowski wheeled the Blue Deuce to six consecutive top-tens (including one victory) that earned the Michigan native an average finishing position of 3.66 for the Cup races from Indianapolis (event #20) to Atlanta (event #25). During that period in 2011, Brad Keselowski became the top story in NASCAR. In 2012, he’s a serious threat to win the Sprint Cup title.

Marcos Ambrose may not be a serious threat for the championship this season, but – if all continues to follow its current trajectory – he’ll certainly be a competitor to watch in 2013. His team’s Dodge/Ford uncertainties are ancient history now that Dodge has taken its ball and gone home, and recent shifts of pit crew personnel were intended to create an added advantage. Making the chase as a wild card will be a long shot for Ambrose and his team, at best, but the momentum they’ve gained over the last month should provide some late-season optimism.

And maybe that’s what achieving a breakthrough in racing is about: a feeling of optimism. It’s optimism that prompts a driver to try his (or her) hand at different cars in different divisions on different tracks in different lands. Marcos Ambrose must have felt optimistic about taking a chance at racing Formula Fords. The same optimism must have driven his transition into V8 Supercars in Australia. When Ambrose made his move to NASCAR and the Camping World Truck Series, he must have harbored the feeling that he could run well in America. From there, the transitions became more typical as Ambrose transitioned into both Nationwide and Sprint Cup competition.

Given his accomplishments during the last month of Sprint Cup events, I believe that Marcos Ambrose is showing his true potential as a championship contender in NASCAR. It may not come in 2012, but that doesn’t mean glimmers of greatness haven’t been seen already.

Motorsports success – like all forms of success – is elusive, as most drivers, crew chiefs, and car owners will tell you. Richard Petty has experienced great success in NASCAR – the kind of that rewrites history and the record books. The level of success enjoyed by Marcos Ambrose this last month may not be epic, but it’s most certainly a step in the desired direction.

Maybe, come this time next year, we’ll mention Ambrose in the same breath as Johnson, Gordon, and Earnhardt. The folks at RPM know it won’t be easy, but they also know it can very well be done.

*Connect with Mark!*

“Contact Mark Howell”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/37270/

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