Tom Bowles
Thursday June 17th, 2010

As NASCAR heads to California wine country this weekend, just two drivers look to taste victory in Infineon with the confidence of three straight top-5 finishes on road courses. The first name should roll right off the tip of your tongue: With seven career victories in 22 starts, Tony Stewart joins Jeff Gordon in a class of his own turning left and right.

Armed with a series-leading nine road course victories of his own, Gordon would be the likely second choice here, right? Wrong. This name's a bit tough to figure out; and considering his year has left everyone scratching their head, it's appropriate you may need to phone a friend in Tasmania to find the answer: Marcos Ambrose.

"A race like Sonoma this weekend, I'll be breathing a little easier knowing that it's my forte," says the second-year driver still searching for his first NASCAR victory, while buried in the midst of a career-worst slump. "It's what I've grown up doing."

"Any time I've been there, I've run at the front both years I've attempted the race. We've done a lot of practice, research on the car, we've done a lot of development. Fingers crossed, it's going to work out."

It was at this race two years ago Ambrose held his coming-out party to the NASCAR world, running as high as second in underfunded equipment before his Wood Brothers No. 21 broke a transmission. Running third at Watkins Glen that August, Ambrose begun his current streak of top-5 finishes as well as a full-time ride with his current team, JTG/Daugherty Racing. With a classic Down Under accent mixed with an enthusiastic, down-home personality, the popular driver gave NASCAR the gift of a marketable breakout star to pair with Joey Logano in '09. A third and a second were the highlights of last year's first full-time foray in Cup, one that left him 17th in points and a popular choice to be this year's Chase upset.

Instead, the only thing Ambrose has upset this year is his stomach. He started the year with two blown engines, lost 50 points on a mechanical rules violation and has yet to fully recover. A clean driver his rookie year, he's seemingly trying to overcompensate on the race track as of late, wrecking in four of the last seven races while ruining someone else's day in a handful of others. Heading to Infineon 30th in points, he's gone from Chase contender to the only driver whose started every race and failed to lead a lap.

"Obviously, our points have definitely not gone the way we wanted to," said Ambrose of the nightmare that's unfolded. "I fear for my job every Sunday. You're only as good as your last race, and racing is a tough business. You get in a slump and people start looking at you, you start looking at yourself. As a race driver, as a person, as a dad, you've got to look at the commitment you're making to racing and then when it starts to go pear-shaped like it has for us this year, you start reflecting on what am I doing wrong? Have I lost my touch? Have I lost focus? All of those things come into play."

"But like any sportsman, I'm pretty stubborn, and I feel I'm applying myself the best I can. We've just had a rotten time of it, and we'll bounce back."

You'd think the Tasmanian should have no such worries about losing his job; under contact through 2011, there's no free agent out there with the upward potential he showed as a rookie. But the DNF total, now up to six in 15 starts, has pulled a snowball effect that's left the team stumbling around in a bit of a daze.

"We wanted to contend for the Chase and win a race," he claimed. "That was our motto for the season. Our goal now is to start gaining momentum, getting consistency, start stringing up those Top 10s, and hopefully then we can get back on track."

That's what makes Infineon so important. Typically, in these types of situations all it takes is just one solid finish to spur the momentum back in an upward direction. It leaves this team salivating over the one type of track on the circuit their confidence hasn't been torn to shreds.

"I'm fortunate that I really know what I need on a road course," Ambrose says. "I know where I need to affect performance, and where I need to worry about so much, and what areas of the race car I really need to focus on."

"From the first lap of practice, I'm ready for that and I really know what I need. I don't need to warm up to a road course. I don't need to dial myself into the track. I don't need to work on my brake markers. All of that is pretty much engrained in my brain."

That leads to a physical and mental edge most oval-trained drivers don't have heading to the road courses. But can this team put their emotions back together, staving off the pressure of knowing a win could suddenly salvage a lost season?

"We feel we can win any week, so we're not putting any extra pressure on ourselves at Infineon," he claims. "It's definitely on my shoulders, the pressure of having to win a race at the Cup level."

"It's hard enough to deal with the pressure on a week-to-week basis, let alone the expectation of trying to go out there and win your first race. So we're down playing our chances."

We'll leave it to the media to pour on the pressure, then. On a weekend where new faces typically populate the top-10 finishers, there's no one who needs to see their name on the leaderboard more than Ambrose. The track that served as a springboard to his Cup career now needs to be the one to stop the bleeding.

- There's no doubt Denny Hamlin's the hottest Cup driver on the circuit, winning five of the last 10 races while launching himself to third in points. But lost in the Michigan win was a troubling fuel pickup problem that nearly left a trip to Victory Lane a moot point. Sound familiar? That's because it's happened multiple times to the No. 11 team, most notably at Bristol two years in a row in ugly endings that cost him well over 150 points. The car recovered quickly this time, getting up to speed after only half-a-lap, but you'd better believe Joe Gibbs Racing was researching the issue this week. Don't forget, it only takes one of those missteps in the Chase to cost you a shot at the championship.

- What do Cup champions Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson have in common? None of them have won on a road course. And while Johnson makes mention of kicking it off his bucket list sometime soon, what incentive is there for their teams to significantly improve without one inside NASCAR's 10-race playoff? If the sport really is serious about making changes to the system -- rumors are building after this year's series of town hall meetings asked for improvements -- that's one of the first tweaks I'd make.

- Looking at the list of road course ringers this weekend, I'm actually turning my head toward a full-time driver who's due for a breakthrough: Max Papis. Scoring his first career Cup top 10 at Watkins Glen last August, the now second-year driver has a year's more stock car experience under his belt and a high-powered Toyota under his feet. While he's still got plenty of work to do on ovals, don't be surprised if this Italian finds himself running with the Big Boys during much of Sunday's race.

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