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Marcos Ambrose, a Tasmanian devil of a road course racer, finally explodes back into NASCAR headlines, with scary-fast laps at Watkins Glen

  Marcos Ambrose: the best road racer in NASCAR? Carl Edwards says Ambrose could win big in Formula 1 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   Marcos Ambrose, the devil-may-care racer whose road course runs during his brief time in NASCAR have been delightful, hasn't made many headlines this season. But he exploded back into the game here Friday with sizzling runs in practice for Sunday's Sprint Cup sprint at Watkins Glen.
   Ambrose was nearly a full second quicker than second-fastest Kurt Busch in the day-long session. But Ambrose will have to back up that performance in Saturday morning's 11:40 a.m. ET quals.
   The top 10 drivers Friday were all faster than the track record. And Carl Edwards, third quickest, said Ambrose -- his Ford teammate -- was "screaming fast. He's got the fastest car here. I'm just glad he's giving me some tips. Or at least I hope he's giving me tips."
    Ambrose and Edwards put on a heck of a show two years ago at Montreal in a rainy Nationwide race, a battle that the hard-nosed Edwards is still thrilled about.
    However, while Ambrose has been one of this tour's top road racers during his brief time on the Cup tour, he's been struggling on the ovals. And this season Ambrose has seemed relatively quiet and calmer than usual.
    "We've had a tough month," Ambrose says. "So we're looking forward to having a real strong weekend. We're a contender, no doubt."
   And there haven't been many times lately Ambrose could say that.
   Last summer at Sonoma Ambrose nearly pulled off his first tour win, but stalled in the waning moments while trying to save gas.
   And he's won three Nationwide races here, at this much faster road course. Why Ambrose isn't running Saturday's race here? Sponsorship, he says.
   The difference between Sonoma and the Glen is striking. "Sonoma is like a bullring," Ambrose says. "You're in everybody's face all day…and you've got to try and knock them around to try and pass. You're bouncing off curbs, and the corners are short, the track is low grip, and there's not a lot of banking. So it really is a difficult place to get around.  You never use top gear; it's all about low speed, forward drive (bite off the corners), and just trying to pass without damaging your car too much.
   "This place is different.  It's more about finesse.  You're usually using third or fourth gear a lot around this place…so it's really about managing tires, about carrying momentum around the whole track. You don't need to be perfect on getting the throttle down; you just need to carry a lot of momentum through the corner."
    Ambrose has finished top-three here in every race. So why hasn't Ambrose won a Cup race here? "Part of my problem has been that I've been Marcos Ambrose from the start of the race, and I wear my brakes and gear box out," he says.
   "You really have to manage your stuff for the first half of the race and give yourself a chance at the end. 
    "Everybody picks up again at the end of the race because you have to: This is NASCAR; this is serious business. Late cautions bunch up the field, and you know every position counts. So you have to be super-aggressive.
   "The way the race is run, it builds up to a frenzy at the end.
    "So I'm very conscious of looking out for my brakes and gear box and getting to that last section of the race in good position.
     "They (other drivers) know how to get you out of the way if you give them a chance; so it's aggressive. And dangerous, as far as getting in accidents and incidents and spinning off and losing track position."
    Ambrose made such a reputation early in his NASCAR career that his more low-keyed approach this season seems a bit odd.
   "Maybe I'm just a bit smarter," Ambrose says. "The first year here I was trying to make an impression so I could get an opportunity in the Cup series;
you naturally drive differently than when you're in the main game full-time.
     "As you mature, you're working with other drivers on the track all year, not just one weekend. So you have to keep in mind that if you rough them up here, they're going to get you back somewhere else.
   "But this sport doesn't help the meek; if you're not aggressive, you're not going to last very long.
    "So I wouldn't say I've changed my style; I may have just gotten smarter at it."


  Matt Kenseth, the last Winston Cup champion, 2003 (Photo: Autostock)

   It now seems like just a quaint footnote to history…..
   It's been some 15 years since Bill Clinton launched the anti-tobacco initiative that, in part, ultimately led to the end of major tobacco companies' sponsorship of NASCAR and Indy-car racing.
    No more Winston Cup.
   So it was curious to walk through the nearly plain blue exhibit trailer here on the midway, with its mysterious Camel Tour sign above the door.

   Yes, that's Camel, like in cigarettes.
    Like the 'sister' brand of long-time (1972-2003) NASCAR Cup tour sponsor Winston, whose marketing of Southern stock car racing over 33 years helped boost this sport to a nationally-recognized sports business.
   After displaying 21+ ID four times in about 20 feet, including one stop for a high-tech, apparently on-line somehow, photograph of it, the visitor gets to open the dark door, sign a big bright poster, sign a detailed bio into an iPad, then get a pack of Camels and a new snuff product Snus for $2.
   High-tech, ultra-legal, and very low-keyed sampling...certainly not with the punchy youthful exuberance of days of yore when pert college-agers could 'sample' at tracks out in the bright sunshine.
   The Camel van is apparently in the same midway location that U.S. Tobacco had a vendor stand last season here.
  So NASCAR doesn't race in the rain?
  Not so.
  NASCAR officials, despite the sloppy, rather exciting but still somewhat ugly race in the rain at Montreal a few years back, say if it rains here Saturday, the Nationwide drivers -- including Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch and Trevor Bayne and Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards -- will be racing on Goodyear's venerable grooved rain tires. If so, then road racing veteran Ron Fellows may be the man to beat in the Zippo 200.
   The question then, is if Nationwide drivers can race in the rain on Saturday, then why can't Cup drivers race in the rain on Sunday?
   "Who says we can't?" Ryan Newman says. "I don't really know why we don't. But I can speculate, and I would say it's probably the fans -- they would probably not like to sit in the rain. Plus, visibility in the rain isn't that good, so the fans couldn't see as much."
   NASCAR officials says they haven't decided exactly the procedures they would use in the event of Saturday rain, that that would depend on the weather itself.
  Goodyear engineers will be testing new tires at Martinsville Aug. 16th and 17th, in a session open to the public. "Tweaking" is how Goodyear describes the new tires, for the Oct. 30th Sprint Cup stop.
   And the first of a series of tires tests on the newly repaved Phoenix International Raceway is being set too, first with a tire test with a handful of drivers, then with a major test in early October to which every NASCAR team is being invited. The Phoenix race is set for Nov. 13th.
   The paving of the one-mile Phoenix track has been completed, and currently soft walls are being reinstalled. The track is undergoing major redesign too, with the frontstretch widened from 52 feet to 62 feet, with a new pit road and concrete pit stalls, with a wider backstretch curve, and with variable banking in the corners – 10-to-11 degrees in turns one and two, and 8-to-9 degrees in turn four.
   Goodyear says the new asphalt will naturally lead to higher speeds, but its computer simulations cannot show if a second groove will develop during the race.



  Jimmie Johnson (R) and Kurt Busch seldom see eye to eye....and when they do, it's usually fireworks. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch haven't talked since their run-in at Pocono, and don't hold your breath.
   Johnson, who was trying to pass Busch for third in the waning moments of the five-hour race, says he's still hot:
   "There are two parts to this thing. First, on the track; second, pit road.
   "The on-track part -- we come off turn one and Kurt gets to me to side-draft me (to slow Johnson). I try to break the side-draft….and he felt it was necessary to run into the side of my car and tear my car up.
   "I made zero contact with Kurt at Pocono until he hit me; then I leaned on him back.
    "I went to break the draft; I never touched him.
     "He instigated the contact.
    "So yes, I was mad at that point.
    "That brings me to the other part, on pit road. When you are in that moment having words with someone, and as the crowd starts to build, that guy all of a sudden gets brave….and when you think it's over and walk away and that guy gets real tough…I don't know about you, but that really makes me mad.
    "Bottom line he just started running his mouth.
    "If you look over the years at his mouth has done for him -- it got my biggest fan Jimmie Spencer to punch him in the face.
     "It's led to issues with NASCAR officials on pit road.
     "I think we all tune in weekly (to Busch's radio) and wonder what's he going to say to his crew.
     "You look at what he said to Roger Penske, his car owner.
     "At the end of the day I'm not going to let him run his mouth at me."
    Still, these two guys are almost certainly in the playoffs, and that could make for some non-championship action.
   "There is no secret there is no love lost between the two of us," Johnson says.
   "We didn't have wrecked cars at the end of Pocono…I could have easily gone down on the tunnel turn and done something stupid, but I didn't.
    "The stuff on track, yes, it made me mad.
    "But to have somebody run their mouth like he does, and did to me, that's the part where I was the maddest."
   However, heading into the playoffs, well, it's probably not smart to have enemies.
   "In theory: yes, you don't want enemies, issues, or anything lingering," Johnson said.
   "But you just don't have that luxury at times.
    "Issues have their arc and run their path. Some are more heated and last longer…while others burn out and fizzle quicker. 
    "You just have to take it as it is."
    A curious aspect to all this is that Johnson is legendary for his cool; when things get tough, he's typically unflappable. And yet at Pocono Johnson became very angry.
   Is this a new Jimmie Johnson?
   "No," Johnson says with a laugh.
   "There has been plenty of history over the years (between Johnson and Busch).  And there are just things that boil to a head.
   "When I hopped out of the car and started talking to him, he had one level of interaction with me while he was sitting in his race car….and when he got out of the car -- neither one of us was happy but we were talking. 
    "And the crowd started to build and his bravery started to build. 
    "I walked away…and he got awfully tough.
    "I mean, if you are going to say something, say it to the man's face -- eye-to-eye -- when he is there.  Don't wait until he walks away."


   Marcos Ambrose (R) and boss Richard Petty. Two men with 1,000-watt smiles (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



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