Tim Tuttle
Tuesday September 1st, 2009

After listening to Marcos Ambrose explain his racing background in the post-race media conference at Kansas Speedway in early July 2006, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series veteran driver Rick Crawford, seated on the stage a few feet away, walked over to the Australian and shook his hand.

"Very impressive," Crawford said to Ambrose.

It was a clear sign of respect in a sport where it usually takes one or two seasons to earn it from fellow drivers. Some never earn it. The truck race at 1.5-mile Kansas was Ambrose's ninth in the series and on an oval, period, and Ambrose had finished third with a stirring run that including passing Crawford and Mike Skinner on the outside to lead the first lap.

"I started my first one-and-a-half mile oval at Charlotte and crashed on the fourth lap after qualifying third," Ambrose said. "We had to wind it back a little bit and regroup and just understand how to race these things. It's very hard to adapt. I've never driven on ovals. I've never driven stock cars. I come from a road race background, so it's been a very difficult transition and wasn't one we expected to be easy."

Three years later, Ambrose's learning curve on ovals is at the post-graduate level. He finished third at tough Bristol two weeks ago -- his best showing on an oval in Sprint Cup. Ambrose's JTG Daugherty Racing Toyota., prepared by Michael Waltrip Racing, didn't have a scratch on it.

Ambrose stands 17th in the points, the highest placed driver in his first full season, although Ambrose doesn't qualify for Raybestos Rookie of the Year because he ran 11 races last season.

As expected, Ambrose has done very well in the two Cup road races, finishing second at Watkins Glen and third at Infineon. Surprisingly, though, he's shined on the restrictor-plate races, fourth at Talladega and sixth at Daytona in July. But those races haven't gotten him to 17th. Ambrose also has been sixth at Pocono, 10th at Bristol I, 11th at Richmond and Chicagoland, 14th at Martinsville and Phoenix. He's proven he can be competitive on every type of track.

Third at Bristol was a proud moment for Ambrose. "This is more satisfying than any of the results I've had, even all the wins [he's won twice in the Nationwide Series] because it's on such a big stage against the best, at a place like Bristol," he said. "The biggest thing about this result is that I've done so well in a race that will arguably go down in NASCAR history.

"Mark Martin [who finished second] is a legend of this sport, and to race him at the front of the pack in front of 180,000-odd people at Bristol and run hard against [winner] Kyle Busch, who is one of the most talented drivers anyone's ever seen, is just awesome and truly a privilege. This place is still intimidating to me, even today. The fans are loud and the race is so fast, 500 laps around here is a battle in itself."

Ambrose actually started out as an open-wheel driver who aspired to race in Formula One. He won the British Formula Ford championship in 1999, a good jumping off point for one of several other development series for F1, but didn't have the funding for any of them and returned to Australia.

A Ford team, Stone Brothers Racing, signed him for the Australian V8 Supercar Series. They're big, Cup-like horsepower sedans that race on road courses. Ford had not been very successful in it over a long period of time, losing to GM's Holden, but Ambrose turned its fortunes around and won 27 races and championships in 2003 and 2004.

Ambrose caught the eye of Ford worldwide racing head Dan Davis, who offered Ambrose a chance to come to NASCAR in 2006. Davis put together a deal with the Wood Brothers/JTG team.

"These guys and the Wood Brothers team, and Ford, who plucked me out of Australia to come over here and have a crack at it," Ambrose said in 2006. "I really owe it to Dan Davis for this opportunity. And my wife. I dragged her halfway around the world with a 2-month-old baby."

Ambrose spent two seasons under the Wood/JTG banner, moving from the truck series to Nationwide in 2007. He finished eighth in points. JTG owners Tad and Jodi Geschickter and the Wood Brothers split up following the season and retained Ambrose, who drove a Ford to 10th in the points in the Nationwide Series this year. When JTG, joined by former NBA player Brad Daugherty, moved into Cup full time this season, they made a deal with Waltrip to supply the equipment, and Ambrose became a Toyota driver.

"I knew I had to learn from scratch, fight my way up through the categories," Ambrose said. "I've finished top 10 both years in the Nationwide Series with a limited budget against the big Cup teams. Really proud of what we've done. We've kept growing, kept moving forward.

"I love NASCAR. It's the best form of racing I've ever experienced. The cars are hard to drive, way too much power, not enough tire, not enough brakes. It's a real challenge to survive out there. We're doing it. I don't think there's any track we can't do this. I want to be here for the long haul. I just love every lap I do."

Ambrose, who turned 33 on Tuesday, races with a hard-but-fair philosophy. "I don't want to ruin anybody's race," he said. "I want to race as hard as I can. When my night is on, I'm going to race as hard as anyone and take those chances, try to do it clean. When I race at the front, I try to do the right thing. I try to race them hard but fair.

"It's my first year. I've got to be very careful about the legends of this sport that I'm racing around and respect them. I think that's a big key component of it, respecting who you're driving against. You're driving against the best in the business who have built this sport, who continue to grow it."

Ambrose is earning his share of respect, too. He's been doing it since joining NASCAR in 2006.

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