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Jimmie Johnson-Kurt Busch 1-2 Sunday at the Glen, but watch out for Marcos Ambrose

  Topsy-turvey Watkins Glen, where drivers may feel at times like Alice in Wonderland (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch, who haven't played well together lately, will test each other the first lap or so of Sunday's 220-miler at this lightning-fast road course in upstate New York, after Johnson edge Busch Friday for the pole for the 2 p.m. start.
    And Denny Hamlin, Pocono winner, will start third, right next to Marcos Ambrose..just days after Hamlin's bump-and-run at Pocono crashed out Ambrose and teammate David Reutimann.
   Failing to make the field: David Gilliland, who nearly won Sonoma last year, Brian Simo and Joe Nemechek. Wild cards making the field: Tony Ave, P. J. Jones, Andy Lally and Max Papis.
   Two of Johnson's big goals this season were to figure out Bristol Motor Speedway and to become competitive on the two road courses. Johnson finished fourth at Sonoma in June, and how well he backs up Friday's run (71.340 seconds around the 11-turn, 2.45-mile course) Sunday could be an interesting point to watch, particularly after his engine problems at Pocono.
    Ambrose, who has run remarkably well on road courses in NASCAR since joining the series last year, could be the sleeper in the field. And he has proven to be an exciting, enthusiastic racer on these road courses during his brief time in NASCAR.
   "We had such a great year here last year that really it's about managing expectations this weekend," Aussie Ambrose says. "It's easy to get carried away with the hype of trying to win the race.  But we've had a really good year so far on the Sprint Cup side, and it's going to be my first Nationwide event (Saturday, an event he won last summer here).  So there's a lot on my plate. 
    "We expect to do well if we finish the race -- but first of all you've got to make it to the finish. 
     "For me, it's about managing expectation and not letting the enthusiasm of trying to win impact our performance."

An anxious Jimmie Johnson checks out his time on the scoring tower (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


At Sonoma in June Ambrose qualified third but started last after an engine change, yet finished third. 
    "Each track has its own quirks," Ambrose says.  "This is a lot faster, but the corners are bigger, so you have more time to correct a problem.  At Sonoma if you get a slide going through turn 11, the hairpin, you lose half a second just like that. 
    "So I find Sonoma more technical than Watkins Glen.
    "Sonoma is a tougher track to survive on, for the whole race, because it's so easy to make mistakes.  There are a lot more corners, and more corners that are going to cost you time and get you in trouble. 
    "Here there may be fewer mistakes…until drivers start running into each other."
    Starting up front will be a plus, he says: "The two road courses I've done in Sprint Cup, I finished third both times starting from dead last. 
    "And both events I've actually run out of tires towards the end of the race. 

Behind Marcos Ambrose' 1000-watt grin -- Beware: because this dog will bite (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
    And then there are those double-file restarts, which every driver is talking about.    
   "The double-file restarts have been a challenge ever since they were introduced, whether it's a short track, a road course, or an oval," Ambrose says. "And I know that turn one here Glen is very easy to lock up an inside front wheel.  When you do that, you don't slow down as fast and you're going to run into somebody. So there could be a big mess down there more than once I imagine. 
    "The risk-reward is very difficult for us, because you take a risk to gain one spot, but on a restart you could potentially lose 20 or 30. 
    "If it's a green-white-checkered, it could really ruin your day easily. 
     "Early in the day it's good to be courageous, because you have a chance to make it back in case you spin out.
     "But towards the end of the event it's going to become a real challenge for the drivers to keep their emotions in check."
    Ambrose has found his emotional 'chip' easier to deal with this season, after last summer's amazing run here: "Last year I was really just spinning out of control. I really didn't know where I should be, what I should be doing, who I needed to talk to or not. 
    "Now I'm in the mix. I'm understanding who I need to be off the track, on the track, in the garage, how to conduct my mornings to get ready for these events.
     "It's exciting to feel I'm so in control now.  I feel I'm part of the series. I feel I'm worthy to be in the Cup garage. 
     "This time last year I was very intimidated…and that can really affect your performance on the track, when you don't feel comfortable in your surroundings.  I was driving for the Wood brothers too -- a famous entry – and I wanted to do them proud. 
    "It gave me that shot I needed to get into the Sprint Cup series:  This event last year was my break-out race, and it let everybody know I was a serious driver and deserved to have a chance.
    "And here I am 12 months later making the most of that."
   Watkins Glen starting lineup for Sunday's Heluva Good!


Uh, Denny Hamlin, looks here like David Reutimann (R, here talking with teammate and fellow Pocono victim Marcos Ambrose) is still pretty animated....about that little bump-and-run at Pocono? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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