DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The only two organizations to accumulate 200 career NASCAR Cup Series victories engaged in drastically different post-race celebrations Saturday night at Darlington Raceway. In Victory Lane stood seemingly every member of the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team, reveling in the fact that Jimmie Johnson's victory had finally given owner Rick Hendrick his 200th win.
Meanwhile, a few hundred yards away in the darkened garage area, Marcos Ambrose and a handful of members from his race team quietly congratulated each other on a ninth-place finish. That might not seem like a big deal, but it actually was an important accomplishment for a group that had not posted a top-10 finish all season. It was a joyful moment tinged with a bit of sadness, because it illustrated just how far Ambrose's team owner, the legendary Richard Petty, has fallen since his days as the undisputed king of NASCAR.
The organization known as Petty Enterprises was founded in 1949 by Richard Petty's father, Lee Petty. In recent years it has been transformed into Richard Petty Motorsports. But no matter what the name, the team that flies the Petty banner has accumulated a record total of 271 Cup Series victories, nearly 200 of them with Richard himself behind the wheel (he won a few races driving for other teams, which was not uncommon during the early days of NASCAR). At his organization's current pace of approximately seven victories per season, Hendrick would need to field cars for at least another decade before reaching Petty's total.
But as good as he once was, Petty's days as a major player in NASCAR are long gone. He won his final race as a driver in 1984, which happened to be the same year that Hendrick Motorsports was formed. Since then, as Hendrick has become the most successful current team in NASCAR, Petty's group has slipped into irrelevance. His teams have managed just five victories over the past 28 years. The only time one of his drivers made the Chase for the Championship was in 2009, when Kasey Kahne won twice for The King before leaving to go race for, naturally, Hendrick Motorsports.
So now the winningest driver in NASCAR history has to find pleasure in his team barely cracking the top 10. But if Petty is ever going to add to his victory total, small steps have to be taken in the right direction. And Ambrose, who is in his second season driving for Petty, is already taking them.
A native of Tasmania, Australia, Ambrose grew up half a world away from NASCAR's playground, but he always had the sport close to his heart. As a child he would cut out photos from racing magazines and tape them to his school notebooks. One of his favorites, which he kept in his math book, was of Petty's famous blue-and-red colored No. 43 car winning the 1981 Daytona 500.
"I was about 7 years old, but I already had an intrigue about NASCAR," Ambrose recalled. "And it didn't matter where you lived. If you knew how to spell NASCAR, you knew about Richard Petty."
So even as Ambrose was winning 27 races and consecutive V8 Supercar titles in 2003 and 2004 as an Australian road racer, he had one eye glancing longingly in NASCAR's direction. Finally in 2006 he decided to take a chance and leave behind his home and successful racing career for an uncertain future in U.S. stock car racing.
"I was on easy street in Australia. I was winning championships and getting paid pretty good," Ambrose said. "At that point I had two options. I could have bought a boat and kept doing the same thing for the next 10 years, or I could sell everything and restart my career from scratch. I chose the latter.
"I committed to coming [to the U.S.] before I had any contracts or had ever raced on an oval. So it really was a major leap for me. But I believed in it. I thought the time was right for me to try it. I'm never afraid to make mistakes. I like to have a go at things. I like to take a shot.
"I knew NASCAR was the biggest racing in the world. If you wanted to be the best driver in the world, you had to come to NASCAR. For me it was fairly straightforward. If I think I'm good, I want to come here and see how good I am."
There was a moment near the end of Saturday's race at Darlington that showed just how good Ambrose can be. After running in the middle of the pack nearly the entire race, Ambrose had battled his way back to 12th place on the green-white-checkered restart. As the cars headed into the first turn Ambrose drove low on the track, went three-wide into the corner, passed Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano and emerged with a ninth-place finish.
Passing low on the track is considered to be nearly impossible at Darlington. Second-place finisher Denny Hamlin said afterward that, "The guy on the inside just gets too loose." Yet Ambrose somehow made it work. It was an old-school racing move made at an old-school track by a driver who had never seen Darlington until five years ago.
"Everybody was on old tires and nobody was going anywhere on the restart -- we were all spinning them out -- so I just went to the bottom of the track," Ambrose said. "I didn't know if there was room. I didn't know if it was a good or bad idea. I just went there. I didn't hit anyone and we finished ninth, so I guess it paid off."
Ambrose said he was determined to get a top-10 finish at Darlington after missing out on several chances earlier this season. He was in third place at Phoenix with 18 laps to go when engine trouble relegated him to 32nd. He was running steadily in the top 10 at Bristol before getting caught up in a wreck and finishing 36th. He was in sixth place on the final lap at Texas and then ran out of gas and finished 20th. He also was in sixth place at the start of the green-white-checkered finish at Talladega but was a victim of the whims of restrictor-plate racing and got shuffled back to 14th by the end.
"We've given away a lot of easy top-10s this year," said Ambrose, who won the Sprint Cup road race at Watkins Glen last year for his only victory. "This one [at Darlington] we earned on merit. We just kept working to get the car better and fought our way back up there. I'm really proud of our team. We work as one. I believe in them and they believe in me."
Then, as fireworks exploded over the historic track and the crowd cheered for the ceremony taking place for Hendrick Motorsports, Ambrose stood well away from the spotlight and basked in his own small celebration.
"I'm glad to get this finish for The King," Ambrose said with a smile. "You have to dig deeper at a track like this and fight until the very end. When you race well at a place like this, you know you're doing something right. This is one of The King's old stomping grounds. It's feels good to have a good run for him."