WATKINS GLEN — Marcos Ambrose was making news again at Watkins Glen International on Saturday. Sure, he set a track record in winning the pole for today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Cheez-It 355, but to anyone who has watched him make his way around the 11-turn road course in the Finger Lakes, it was far from a slam-on-the-brakes surprise.
It was during Ambrose’s interviews after that fastest qualifying lap when the news broke: He apologized to his team “because I did lose my cool” with his team during Friday’s second practice session.
The affable, easy-going, seemingly-always-smiling Australian who seems straight out of an Aussie tourism ad? He gets angry?
“The boys did a good job listening to my rants and managed to calm me back down,” said the 37-year-old native of Lauceston, a city in the north part of the island of Tasmania. “We had one shot at qualifying practice and we just got a lot of traffic and the car didn’t feel good, so there was a lot of drama there.
“I wasn’t sure what we had, and you want to go into qualifying and go into the race feeling really good about what you’ve got, and I just didn’t get that feeling at the end of practice. That’s what got me bent out of shape.”
You get the feeling that this kind of out-of-character “rant” might not have come from Ambrose at Talladega or Richmond or Chicagoland.
It came at the Glen, where his standards are understandably high; his record speaks for itself, and his adoration for the track leads to a chicken-or-the-egg question: Does the driver whose talents were honed road racing a few continents away love the track because he wins here? Or does he win here because he loves the track?
“It’s probably been the best track that I’ve ever gone to,” he said. “I love the area and I like the history of this place. This place feels like a European race track. Some guys have home tracks – I obviously don’t, not being from around these parts, so when I come to a track like this it actually does feel like the track that I grew up on.”
He has won the last two Cup races here, displaying his driving talent with rather dominant runs early and then outracing perhaps the series’ two top young stars – Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski – both times during did-you-see-that? banging-and-bumping dashes to the finish.
A third straight Cup win at the Glen would match a feat by a pair of all-time greats – Mark Martin (1993-95) and Jeff Gordon (1997-1999). Ambrose already accomplished the feat in the Nationwide Series at the Glen, winning from 2008-2010.
It’s a racing resume which has his peers expecting the best from Ambrose at the Glen. After Clint Bowyer’s lap was beat by Ambrose, he flatly said that “he should win the pole here.” When Keselowski was asked Saturday about losing on last year’s crazy last lap, he alluded that finishing second to Ambrose at the Glen is something he took pride in.
Ambrose has those kind of expectations, too. In Friday’s initial and important practice (it determined when cars would take to the track for their qualifying lap), he had the second-fastest car. But in the second practice, he was 17th.
“I was just frustrated with the second practice,” Ambrose said. “It just didn’t feel like we made enough progress and I was just worried for the race and for qualifying. I know we were fast … but it just wasn’t feeling right for me. They did a good job to calm me down and not overreact to what I was saying and made some small adjustments and they’ve worked out really well. … I had a bad afternoon, but the guys regrouped around me and supported me and I came back and delivered for them.”
Ambrose’s lap of 128.241 mph (68.777 seconds) earned him his third career pole, and his first at the Glen. He started fifth last year and third in 2011.
The rest of the field must shake their head at that prospect, and here’s more for them to feel bad about: This year’s new model of the Sprint Cup car, the “Gen-6” car, helped a total of 10 drivers go faster than the previous track record set by Juan Pablo Montoya last year (127.020 mph, 69.438 seconds).
Ambrose is able to push himself away from the field by gaining fractions of time potentially at every corner. The Gen-6 car has more downforce, and thus more handling ability for a driver who excels in that area.
“We’re going around the corners better,” said Ambrose. “We’re braking a lot later than we have done here in the past. … The old car just didn’t have a lot of downforce and didn’t slow the car down. With this car you can actually get off the gas pedal and you can feel the air trying to slow that car down just a little bit, and that helps the brakes.”
When asked about possibly winning three straight here, Ambrose quickly shoves it away, saying “we haven’t won the race yet … I hate thinking about that stuff.” There are pit stops to perform, engine and equipment troubles to avoid, “racing deals” to not be dealt into.
Barring any of those twists and turns, and considering that surprising spark he showed on Friday, Ambrose should win today.