Marcos Ambrose, who bested Brad Keselowski in a dramatic, on and off the race track slugfest on the final lap of last year’s Cheez-It 350, is an obvious favorite to win Sunday’s return to Watkins Glen International. The Australian import has beaten Keselowski in successive seasons and would become just the third driver to win three consecutive Glen races. Denny Hamlin was the most recent winner of three straight at a specific track; in 2009-10 at Martinsville Speedway.
A victory likely will qualify Ambrose for Chase Wild Card consideration. He currently stands 22nd but is only five points out of a requisite top-20 ranking.
That probably won’t be enough to give the driver of the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford a post-season berth. Tony Stewart (11th), Martin Truex Jr. (14th) and Ryan Newman (15th) are at least 75 points ahead of Ambrose – a huge gap to overcome with five races remaining.
Effectively Ambrose – and Juan Pablo Montoya, another Glen winner – would have to add an oval victory to their season stats, something neither competitor has been able to do in their NASCAR Sprint Cup careers.
Newman has the easier route. He’s just nine points behind Truex after a victory and fourth-place finish in his past two starts. Former Sprint Cup champions Keselowski and Kurt Busch stand oh-so-close to the top 10 – 12th and 13th, seven and 11 points, respectively outside the top 10.
Keselowski likely would accept another second-place finish. Busch owns a premier series road racing victory at Sonoma Raceway in 2011 and would be the first driver from a single-car team – the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet – to qualify for the Chase.
“I feel very confident now heading back there not to just have speed in qualifying but to have speed throughout the race,” said Busch, reflecting on last week’s Glen test. “It’s an important race. Sonoma is on the calendar in June and the middle of August is much more important.”