Marcos Ambrose, who will drive in Sunday’s Cup at the Glen for the Wood brothers, celebrates winning Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide 200 (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Hey, remember the Woods?
The legendary stock car team, that ran for years out of a shop just north of Winston-Salem, up in Stuart, Va., suddenly has an ace in the hole at the wheel of their Ford: Aussie Marcos Ambrose.
And if this thing pans out in Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen – admittedly a very big if – the Woods, Len and Eddie, and patriarch Glen and Leonard, could be back in the NASCAR win column for the first time in a long, long, long time.
Get it now, Ambrose is hot.
The little-known racer trying to make in NASCAR, a rookie on the Sprint Cup tour, and a journeyman, trying to land a steady ride, had a shot to win at Sonoma in June with the Woods. He ran as high as second at Bruton Smith’s northern California track, but a gearbox failure 26 laps from the finish – after he got rear-ended by Elliott Sadler—doomed him and the Woods.
And Ambrose had a great shot to win last weekend’s NASCAR Nationwide event at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, battling for the lead all afternoon only to get foiled late by the rain. Ambrose had the quickest car at Montreal, but NASCAR red-flagged the race—while he was running third and awaiting a final pit stop to regain the lead—and called it a day when rain got too heavy.
But Saturday at the Glen Ambrose finally broke through, winning the Nationwide 200, and setting himself up for Sunday’s Cup event with the Woods.
Wow! Is that Richard Petty winning again? Nope, it’s Marcos Ambrose. A star is born? Maybe so. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
And Ambrose had the Woods smiling when he posted some of the quickest practice laps Saturday in their Ford: “It’s not every day you can say you topped the charts at the Cup level. We’re really pleased with that.
“It’s a real privilege to drive for the Wood brothers, and I just hope I can play my part in getting them back on track.”
The Woods have struggled mightily lately, and they really don’t have a full-time regular at the wheel. If Ambrose can show something Sunday at the Glen, it could be a sorely needed shot in the arm for the Woods.
However Ambrose will have to start dead-last…which means he’ll have his hands full. “I said to the guys ‘Make it comfortable, because I’m going to have to be aggressive to drive past some cars.
“We might not have the fastest piece, because we’re going to set it up to be comfortable so I can race it well.
“We’re going to have to be smart out there. I want to finish the race and get them some momentum.”
Ambrose is behind the eight-ball, because he not only has very little NASCAR experience but he also has virtually no experience on the fast Watkins Glen course. Of course that was no problem Saturday.
“It’s an old-school track—rough,” Ambrose says.
Well, that may well suit Ambrose, who is a rough driver himself, as he showed in Mexico City earlier this year.
Patience? He just laughs: “I’m not very patient…so we’re in trouble.”
Now that’s a smile! Marcos Ambrose surprised at Sonoma in June, surprised again last weekend at Montreal, and finally won Saturday at the Glen. Now what can he do in the Woods’ Ford in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen? (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Ambrose isn’t the only guy who may make this Glen race one for the books.
Robby Gordon wants to make a game of it too Sunday. But with rain washing out Friday qualifying, he’ll have to start 31st, and track position is so important on road courses, where passing is tricky. So Gordon may be worth the price of admission, since he’s one of NASCAR’s finest – and most daring – road racers.
“I think we can have a good day,” Gordon says, realizing his sponsorship plans for 2009 – and that’s a $20-million-plus nut to crack – may hinge on how well he does at the upper New York state track.
If nothing, Gordon should make the afternoon exciting: “It a fun track to race. You can carry a lot of speed around, and there never is a dull moment in the car.”
So deep in the field for the start, Gordon realizes “You have to have some luck. Running in the back is tough.
“I’m going to have to pick my spots where to pass, and not put my car in a position where I can wreck it or run it off the road.
“The key for us will be to put ourselves up near the front to be in position to make a run that last 20-lap dash.”
Robby Gordon starts Sunday NASCAR race at Watkins Glen in a deep hole, after rain washed out qualifying (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)
And David Gilliland is also on the hot seat at the Glen, needing a good run – like his spectacular performance at Sonoma in June, where he came within a hair of an amazing upset win – to land sponsorship for struggling car owner Doug Yates.
“Confidence and momentum go a long ways, and we’ve been building some momentum,” Gilliland says. “We’ve had some strong runs, just haven’t had the finishes to show for them.
“But we’ve had some great race cars, and a lot of that stems back to Sonoma—I think that was a turning point for our organization.
“It showed these guys that ‘Hey, we can run up front. We can finish up front.’”
Gilliland concedes his lack of experience at the Glen could hamper him. “But I definitely have a lot of confidence in the car and feel like I can do it.”
Gilliland’s Sonoma run probably shouldn’t have been so surprising, since he’s got plenty of lap time there. But it was an emotional afternoon – “There were a lot of emotions,” he says of that day. “We’ve had our share of difficulties in this series. And that was a day I’ll never forget, for sure.”
David Gilliland had the car to beat at Sonoma….what can he do in Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen? (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
This Glen weekend has already shaped up as a strange one in several respects, and now Boris Said in a Richard Petty Dodge? Well, when rain knocked Said out of the Sunday field Robbie Loomis, Petty’s general manager, made a quick call, and Said said yes to running in the car that Kyle Petty had planned to drive.
“Before I could say yes, I had to check with Ford, because they have been so good to me this year,” Said said. “They gave me their blessing, and now I get to race.”
Said is one of the world’s best road racers, and he’s still trying to find a bigger niche in NASCAR. Sunday’s run, however, may not be a break – “I’m kind of on a different page,” Said concedes. “If I were racing my car, I’d go all out and take all kinds of chances to win. But when the Pettys asked me to do this, the most important thing is to get their car in the top-35 in owner points. So if I can finish in the top-10, that will be a successful day for the 45 team.
“To take a lot of chances, I just won’t, because I don’t want to go off-track and get a 40th.”
Then again it’s a suddenly new deal all the way around for Said and the Pettys. “It’s really getting to know the team,” Said says. “I’ve never worked with anybody over in the Petty camp, I’ve never driven the car or sat in it before. That’s the tough part.
“And the level of communication won’t be there either.
“But last year I got to drive for the Wood brothers, and now the King. I told Richard I want a bonus if I finish in the top-10— I want a signed Richard Petty hat that I can put on my wall. I think that would be the coolest thing.”
Boris Said got rained out of qualifying for Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, but Richard Petty came to his rescue (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR)
The Glen surprise could be Dale Earnhardt Jr., on the front row for the start after NASCAR set the starting grid by point standings following Friday’s rain. But then Earnhardt undoubtedly picked up a few tricks from road racing veteran Ron Fellows, who won at Montreal last weekend in Earnhardt’s own Nationwide car.
“He is a good guy, and I have known him for a long time,” Earnhardt says of the well-respected international racer. “But he is a hard act to follow…so I have my work cut out.
“We became friends back in ‘99 (Earnhardt’s break-in season in NASCAR), and I had a lot of respect for him. We got to work together again with Corvette in 2001; he was a teammate when I drove with my father. He has always been glad to help.
“There are people that will help you….but there is a difference in the guy that will help you and the guy that is glad to help you. He is one of those guys happy to lend a hand however he can. He just likes to help people and see them do good.
“He is still a far superior road racer than a lot of the Cup guys in this sport that are regulars. So it’s good to be able to hang out with him.”
Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. (L) talks with Dale Earnhardt Jr. during practice for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Earnhardt’s former teammate at DEI, Martin Truex Jr., has decided not to fight DEI over his contract and just stick it out one more year, even though Truex was vigorously trying to get his release so he could move to another team.
Earnhardt, who knows what it’s like to deal with DEI, says Truex probably made the best move: “It gives Martin another year, and he can see what the landscape is like (for 2010).
“What he did was take the best opportunity, and that was staying where he was. And maybe next year he will have a better opportunity somewhere else…or maybe it will still be where he is.
“I didn’t get in the middle of it. I didn’t talk to Martin. I didn’t talk to Max Siegel (the contract negotiator at DEI). But I am glad they have chosen to do what they did. I think it is good for both of them.
“Martin has a pretty good relationship with his team. He is the premier driver for that whole company.
“So I think Martin made a wise decision to wait it out another year.”
Martin Truex Jr, who just agreed to drive one more year for DEI, doesn’t look too happy (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)
But then Earnhardt has his own business issues – he’s still looking for a sponsor for his Nationwide team for 2009….so maybe Fellows’ win may help.
“I would hope I wouldn’t have a difficult time finding a sponsor,” Earnhardt says. “We have a great team, that runs well and gets a lot of valuable recognition and television time.
“We are talking to a group of people, and hopefully one of those will be a great fit for us.
“But it is a challenge. And I wasn’t anticipating facing this challenge this season.
“Still, it’s part of the business.”
Ron Fellows, holding up his Montreal trophy, draws praise from Dale Earnhardt Jr. for helping him on NASCAR’s road courses. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images for NASCAR)
And Earnhardt isn’t the only Nationwide car owner struggling for dollars. That’s one reason NASCAR has backed off introducing the car-of-tomorrow in that series.
“It really throws a lot of options up in the air when you are talking about bringing the car-of-tomorrow into the Nationwide series,” Earnhardt says. “Depending on where your company is in its growth, you can look at opportunities in Cup (instead of Nationwide) if the sponsorships are there….and I might have a better opportunity finding a sponsor in the Cup series than I would in the Nationwide Series.
“And if I have to build all-new race equipment, and if I can make more money finishing in the back one-third of the Cup series as I can in the front one-third of the Nationwide series…..”
Jeff Gordon, who sorely needs a win this season and could get it Sunday at Watkins Glen International, says he thinks teammate Jimmie Johnson and Ford’s Carl Edwards have a championship ‘edge’ over tour points leader Kyle Busch (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Of course the man to beat Sunday has to be Jeff Gordon….or maybe Tony Stewart. They’re the two best on the tour at this type of track. But, surprisingly, they’re both still winless this season.
Stewart’s teammate Kyle Busch has been the tour’s hottest driver, and as the top man in the standings he’s got the best starting spot Sunday.
However Jeff Gordon says he and teammate Jimmie Johnson “are turning the heat up….”
If Johnson were as good on road courses as Gordon, then Johnson would be the man to beat at the Glen. But road racing still doesn’t come quite that naturally to Johnson.
Gordon says it’s that point in the season where momentum starts to play a bigger and bigger role, with the start of the championship chase looming: “Right now most of us think more about momentum than we do anything else….
So who’s your money on in this year’s NASCAR championship: Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch (here), or Carl Edwards? (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)
“I have always said how much talent Kyle has and the respect I have for him….But where people in the past (with as much of a lead as Busch currently does) have coasted, that is not Kyle Busch. That is not how he does things. He doesn’t know how to coast.
“Last week I saw the right-side flat on his car. The guy doesn’t know how to coast.
“They are pushing hard, they are trying hard…and they might win this weekend, who knows. That is the kind of year they have had, where they’ve been able to surprise you when you least expected it.
“I still think they are definitely one of the teams to beat in the chase.
“But they have shown some vulnerability. Me right now, if I had to put my chips on the table, I would say you have Jimmie and Carl Edwards that to me seem like the guys to beat. Then I would put Kyle next.”
Hmmmmm….sounds like something Busch and crew chief Steve Addington might want to tape to their toolbox….
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Now that’s a sight not seen in quite a while—an STP-sponsored car winning a NASCAR race. Give it to Aussie Marcos Ambrose, outrunning Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (5) at Watkins Glen (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)