For Marcos Ambrose, the Chase is all but out of reach. But that doesn't mean he'll be chalking 2011 up as a loss. There's more than one way to measure a season, and for the Australian driver, who's in his first season with Richard Petty Motorsports, this one is shaping up to be his most successful yet.
With 15 races remaining on the Sprint Cup Series schedule, Ambrose has three top-fives, six top-10s and is within reach of career highs for both. Moreover, for the first time in his three full-time seasons, he has yet to post a DNF.
It's progress and it's exactly what Ambrose was looking for when he left JTG Daugherty Racing for Richard Petty Motorsports last August.
"I wanted to be competitive every week," Ambrose said. "We're up there in the running, we're not delivering the results we're looking for, but we definitely have car speed, so I'm excited about it and I'm optimistic that we're going to be even better here as the season winds up for 2012. I don't want to overstate it, but we've got a chance to win races."
He showed potential in his first full-time Sprint Cup Series season in 2009, posting four top-five finishes and seven top-10s, and he was in position to win both road-course events as he finished 18th in the driver standings. But last year proved a major setback as he had eight DNFs and slipped to 28th in points.
Needing a fresh start, Ambrose left JTG Daugherty and signed a multi-year deal with RPM to replace Kasey Kahne in the No. 9. It offered a return to Ford, for whom Ambrose raced as a V8 Supercar star in Australia, and it also offered an opportunity for him to work with the legendary Richard Petty.
"To be as commanding a figure as he is, it's just awesome to experience it and it's given me a lot of confidence," Ambrose said. "Somebody of Richard Petty's stature can put his weight behind you and believe in you as well, [and that's] been wonderful for me and my career."
The most glaring hole in Ambrose's game was on the intermediates that make up the brunt of the NASCAR schedule. He's made strides in his first year with RPM, delivering career-best performances at Charlotte (ninth), Darlington (13th), Las Vegas (fourth) and Texas (sixth). While he credits the equipment and the work of crew chief Todd Parrott for those results, Ambrose says simply becoming more acclimated to that type of racing has also played a major role.
"You get to the point where the speeds aren't alarming anymore," he said. "You're just looking for that perfect line and that perfect car setup and it makes it easier to run those big tracks."
For all the gains he's made on those tracks, Ambrose will be back in the spotlight this week because few are better when it comes to road courses. He's been stellar at Sonoma with three top-10s in four starts, but it's Watkins Glen, this week's stop on the Cup schedule, where Ambrose has been at his best.
In 2008 he started 43rd, last in the field, and wound up finishing third. The most remarkable part? It was just his third start in the series. A year later he led nine laps and finished second, and in '10, Ambrose came in third again. If and when Ambrose reaches Victory Lane for the first time, The Glen would seem the most logical place.
"I've got a good feel for the place and I like the heavy stock cars and sliding around a lot, so I can really hustle around that track. I think my previous life as a V8 car driver and the road racing helps me," Ambrose said. "I like to get hot and bothered and let the tires float around and if other drivers start making mistakes, I can maintain my speed for longer in the run and I think that helps me too."
Ambrose gives himself an outside shot at making the Chase, though the task is daunting. Sitting 23rd in points, he'd need not only a victory this weekend, but he'd likely have to win three of the final five regular-season events to earn a wild card. He'll continue to push for the playoff, but Ambrose is also laying the groundwork for the future.
"I've got a chance to finish in the top 20 in the season championship and a chance to win some races here toward the end of the season and build up for a big 2012," he said.
That's the score after Wednesday's announcement that Pocono will shorten both of its races from 500 miles to 400, beginning in 2012. It's a change that's been a long time coming, one that everyone -- from fans to Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett -- has been calling for over the years.
The races on Pocono's 2.5-mile, triangle-shaped track simply took too long. Track president Dr. Joseph Mattioli has long said, in the name of maintaining tradition, he would not consider shortening either race, and yet here they are trimming 100 miles off both.
What's changed? Could it be the reality of a TV deal that's nearing its end?
NASCAR's current TV contract expires after the 2014 season, and Fox Sports chairman David Hill has let it be known that he's not entirely happy with the on-track product. He said in January he'd like events to be scaled back to fit into a three-hour block of programming, but summed up the prospects of getting the series to change its ways thusly: "NASCAR doesn't negotiate."
But NASCAR is obviously listening. Fontana has already scaled back its second race, as have Phoenix, Las Vegas and the Atlanta race that was moved to Kentucky. All of those events, in their previous forms, have taken more than 3 1/2 hours to complete.
Could it be just the beginning? Maybe the truest test of a track that staunchly objected to altering its race distances caving in will be its effect on the rest of the schedule. Will we see one of the other nine races that are 499 miles or more trimmed? And if so, would it include any of NASCAR's most tradition-rich events?
It would be hard to imagine the Daytona 500 as anything else. It's a brand name and it's unlikely it would be impacted, but what about the Coca-Cola 600? Not too long ago, Gordon said, "I wish it wasn't 600 miles, to be honest ... It's not as exciting a race at 600 miles. In fact, 500 miles is too long to me. I think the 400-mile races are the most exciting we have."
It has seemed like blasphemy, the mere notion of cutting back NASCAR's ultimate marathon, but the idea of creating a marketable product that keeps viewers engaged is clearly more than lip service these days.
Pocono is telling us less is more, and it would be stunning if it's the last stop on the schedule to feel the same way as NASCAR lines itself up for the impending bidding war for its next TV deal.