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Racing to the Point: What Kept Marcos Ambrose from Becoming a Great?

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.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
What kept Marcos Ambrose from breaking through in NASCAR? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

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.

About the author

Brett starts his fourth year with the Frontstretch in 2014, writing the popular Racing To The Point commentary on Tuesdays. An award-winning Connecticut Sportswriter and Editor, Brett resides in the Constitution State while working towards his dream of getting involved in racing full-time.

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I think it was all about his confidence and the level of support he had within the RPM organisation. As you mentioned, he was building momentum during 2012 and then RPM pulls his crew chief to help the 43 car. This tells Ambrose that he is considered the No 2 within the organisation and his confidence and results from then on reflect this. A sad story of what might have been. i wish him well back in V8 supercars but even there he is going to what is now a 2 level team. I hope I am wrong and Penske throws a lot of resources into it if just to prove what a good driver Ambrose is.


Its difficult to tell which is the driver and which is the car. Probably his biggest failing was accepting jobs for teams that realistically had little chance of winning. That said his bank balance is probably in much better shape than it was when he left Australia. He will do well back there with the Penske team and all will be well.


Second rate equipment.

Carl D.

Ditto. From a second rate organization. Thank goodness they’re reportedly replacing Ambrose with superstar David Ragan. If Ragan can only replicate the success he had when driving for Jack Roush…

Tim S.

Yes, in both Cup and Nationwide, he won in customer cars from a team on the decline, fielded by a mid-pack operation. It’s tough to be even a factor in a situation like that. That he did win, and multiple times, says a lot, no matter which track it was.

R Dinkle

Ambrose is a very talented driver, the ONLY reason he never won on the oval was because he never had the equipment to win. Mystery to me why one of the big 3 never picked him up, there is no better driver even now at Hendrick, Penske, Gibbs or Roush.


I bet if he’d been in the 88 car this whole time, he might have won a championship by now. I have a ton of respect for him and his talents. Hate to see a good guy leaving.

Tim S.

I hate to see him go as well. In my years of declining interest in the Cup series, he’s one of the few I’ve kept up with besides my favorite.

Shirley G

As someone else said, “second rate equipment.” I’d like to have seen what he could do with a Hendrick car….


Meh, at best a thoroughly average driver, (besides his road course prowess), driving for thoroughly average, (at their best), teams. No mystery there, as time & again we’ve seen in NASCAR that just being good on a road course is no guarantee of success on other tracks. Combine that with the level of the teams he’s raced for & you get the expected results.

Whomever all have said he would have blossomed at another team, (JGR, HMS, etc),, & perhaps even won a championship, well, there’s a reason he never got the opportunity; those other teams obviously thought he lacked the talent or abilities they were looking for, (outside of the marketing, such as with the 88 team), thus he wasn’t considered. Nothing against Marcos, who I have liked since he got into NASCAR, but facts are facts.

Tim S.

I would bet that a great number of the drivers who have blossomed at the big 3 or 4 would not have done so at JTG or RPM, or their equivalents at the time of said driver’s entry into the sport. Several of today’s superstars have never been in anything but the best as a Cup driver, and have rarely faced anything more adverse than not being the first car one lap down when the debris caution is thrown.

Ambrose left on his own, which isn’t something that a Cup driver does very often. If his new team is as strong as Penske’s motorsports ventures usually are, at worst this is a lateral move for him.


Oh I agree that has a lot to do with it, but it also proves my point: That cream rises to the top. There’s a reason why drivers like Gordon, Harvick, Edwards, Johnson, Keselowski, et al, have gotten the rides that they have, & a reason why average/journeyman drivers such as Ambrose, Mears & Gilliland & others got the rides that they got. For whatever reasons or circumstances they failed to prove that they deserved a better ride.

I’m reminded of something the late Benny Parsons said many years ago, after winning two ARCA & one NASCAR championship: After he won both ARCA championships & going into NASCAR full time, he was convinced that all drivers were created equal, & it was just the car that made the difference. He said he soon discovered he was wrong, that there is a difference between drivers, some were more talented than others, & that’s why they got the better rides. Now that’s coming from someone that won a Cup title, two ARCA titles, 21 races including the 1975 Daytona 500, & had 199 top five finishes & 283 top ten finishes in 526 races, so I’d say his credentials were pretty valid.

Part of my initial comments were based on the writer’s assumption that being a road course specialist should have “automatically” meant Marcos was going to be equally good or great on ovals, when his stats on road courses were compared to the true greats. It could be totally converse, that the truly great drivers excel on all types of race tracks & aren’t specialists. Another part of my comments stem from forty-six years of following the sport, writing about it myself in the past, & knowing personally many of the greats, near greats, average drivers, independents & also rans over the years, along with many crew members, One develops a pretty accurate & very objective eye over time, & the fact that I like Marcos, & no longer really have a “dog in the hunt” in NASCAR as far as a true favorite I pull for, lets me be even more objective in how i view things like this.

Tim S.

Good points. I never even had any famous friends. What do I know.


I honestly wasn’t mentioning that as in my having “famous friends”, but more in line with trying to show why I thought the way I do about why Marcos never got a top flight ride in NASCAR. It was simply a way of explaining how I got my perspective, nothing more. Especially since moving from the southeast, (but even for a few years before then), I’ve had no contact with anyone in the sport anymore.


I’ve been a Marcos fan since day one he drove a truck.I truly believe that RPM let him down when they put Todd Parrott with Aric Almirola. That was the beginning of the end for Marcos. ( I don’t think Todd would’ve jeopardized his job either). If anyone has noticed, and I have, the beloved 43 always has to finish better than the 9. Except for Chicago where they put the R&D engine in the 43 by mistake. RPM should’ve moved mountains to get Marcos in the chase (even though there was no way he was going to win the CUP) as soon as Aric got in it. But no, they’re using him as the test driver, especially now that he’s moving home.

Roger Penske is my new hero. I hope we find out how long this V8SC deal was in the making, though I knew something was up when he didn’t re-sign with RPM, or go to another team. I wish Marcos Ambrose all the best in the world. This fan will miss him.

Ohio Kart Racer

Several years ago Ambrose, along with Tony Stewart showed up at our local 1/3rd mile dirt oval for an evening of fun with several local sprint car teams. Although Marcos had never been in a sprint car, and never driven on a dirt track before that evening – after 10 laps in the car he was turning faster laps than the car’s regular driver – who had been one of the top local runners for several years! Just one of my great memories of a very talented driver. Great seeing him go to the Penske organization where he will be in a top flight super car! Will be fun to watch!!


Driving a FORD sure didn’t help his chances any.

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