There had never been any doubt that Marcos Ambrose was a talented race car driver, specifically on road courses, where he earned his living and reputation in Australia before hauling his family and his aspirations to the United States for a hopeful NASCAR career.
A three-time Nationwide Series winner on the Watkins Glen road course, he'd been close in the Sprint Cup series before, specifically last summer at Sonoma, when he led under caution in the final laps but stalled his car attempting to save fuel and was ruled sixth after being passed by several cars.
On Monday, he finally justified a lot of decisions, he said, winning his first Cup race by overtaking Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski on a final restart in an emotional day for the Tasmanian at WGI.
"I've felt a lot of weight of expectation and pressure to win and sometimes that clouds judgment," said Ambrose, who is in his third full Sprint Cup season. "I know I've tripped over myself once or twice trying to get to Victory Lane here in the Cup Series. It's not that I was worried, but the word 'choke' was starting to creep into the back of my mind."
Denny Hamlin dropped a spot to 12th in driver points after crashing and finishing 36th, meaning the wild card, not the top ten, may be his most likely avenue to the postseason with four races left in the regular season. Hamlin, a race winner, is 33 points behind 10th-place (the last automatic transfer spot) Tony Stewart.
The performance of 11th-place Clint Bowyer becomes of keen importance to Hamlin now. A first win of the season by the Richard Childress Racing driver could put Bowyer back in the Chase and bump Hamlin on the basis of their points standings.
Even at 22nd in points, Ambrose is suddenly a wild-card threat. Another win would likely launch him into the top 20 and at least temporarily oust Hamlin. Race-winner David Ragan is already gone, out of the top 20 after being involved in a wicked crash and finishing 28th. There is still much to decide, and even more to fret over.
"I think we're on great standing now. At least we moved up a bunch in the points, which is good. Got to make the most of that wild-card stuff that we were able to build up," he said.
"Well I'm just racing, man, trying to do what I think is smart," he said. "[I] had a really good car today. The guys send great race cars down the road and I just try to take care of them and hopefully we can get the job done. I think we're a good enough team to make the Chase bar none, we should be able to get in there no problem."
Three vicious crashes on Monday illustrated both points as Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, David Ragan and David Reutimann emerged unhurt after hitting sections of Watkins Glen's barricade system lacking the SAFER barriers that have become the industry standard in racing. Hamlin's headlong plunge into a tire pile -- with a concrete wall and fortified stanchion behind -- apparently occurred, he said, because of a brake failure and locked front wheels that prevented him from turning. Ragan was sent hard into an angle, concrete wall and back into the track where he collided with Reutimann, sending the No. 00 Toyota into metal guardrails and upside down on the final lap.
"It's a shame a racetrack we go to in 2011 doesn't have a better wall design all the way around the racetrack," said the reserved Ragan, diplomatically. "I've been to dirt tracks that have a better design than that."
Reutimann, whose fire suit was pierced on the left shin by an unknown object added, "I'm thinking where I hit would be a good place for SAFER barriers."