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."
1. The wild-card picture is ever tenuous. Brad Keselowski's gritty second-place finish vaulted him five spots to 14th in driver points and gave him a 24-point cushion between himself and 20th place, the cutoff for wild-card qualification. If he stays above that cutoff, his two wins put him in solid position for a postseason berth.
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.
2. Brad Keselowski may be a mutant. A victory last week at Pocono, just three days after sustaining a broken left ankle, was an impressive bit of mannishness. Simply attaining competence on Monday would have been a completely acceptable result for Keselowski, who entered the race trying to defend his Chase wild-card spot. Despite the increased difficulty compared to oval racing, Keselowski was beyond competent and a threat to win on Monday, running up front on the final lap before settling into second place, his best ever finish on a road course. Keselowski was admittedly uncomfortable after the race, but the look of dread that washed across his face as he stood up from his seat on pit wall was more suggestive of anguish. Either way, his pain tolerance and dexterity advanced him past the most obvious pitfall between him and a first playoff spot.
"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.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is snuggling up. NASCAR's most popular driver was among a crowd of crew chiefs outside the officials' hauler on Monday, hoping to clarify his finishing position after a last-lap melee prompted a caution during a green/white/checker finish. There was much at stake for Earnhardt, who, as the Chase approaches, has attempted to rectify a descent through the standings. Ultimately, Earnhardt Jr. was scored 15th, allowing him to advance one spot to ninth in the standings, which established a 36-point cushion between himself and 11th-place Clint Bowyer that might be enough to secure a Chase berth. Maintenance of a top-10 (read: assured) Chase spot is crucial for a driver winless in his last 115 starts. Earnhardt Jr. advanced from 22nd after needing a precautionary fuel stop late in the race to finish 15th on Monday.
"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."
4. Tracks are not SAFER enough. Ten years after the last on-track death in NASCAR, the current generation of Sprint Cup vehicles continues to validate itself as a legacy to Dale Earnhardt, who died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. But the vagaries of racing continue to hurtle drivers into right angles, hardened walls and unanticipated potential death traps. So far, the cars have been sufficient. Tracks, however, continue to be deficient.
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."
5. Boris Said is not ninja material. The veteran road racer and longtime NASCAR aspirant is unlikely to perpetrate many sneak attacks, not at 6-foot-several and with that shock of knotty hair. But after being accosted by Greg Biffle in his car at the end of the race, Said vowed to punch Biffle in the eye, deemed him a "chump" and an unprofessional racer and asked gathered media for his address so that he might enact his revenge. Said crew chief Nick Harrison said Biffle and Said have a lengthy and acrimonious history, and a last-lap incident in which Said bumped Biffle teammate Ragan to precipitate two violent crashes appears to have made them less cordial. Said declared that he was not trying to bump Ragan, just maintain his track position, but Biffle appeared to take enough umbrage with the incident that he attempted to punch Said through the window of his car in the garage after the race. "Baby punches," as Said deemed them. Still, he charged at Biffle and his crew with his helmet on. No chance of a black eye that way.