WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- The whispers were there in the wind.
And whenever the Sprint Cup Series arrived at one of its rare road courses, the wind seemed to blow a little harder and the whispers got louder.
-- MARCOS AMBROSE
Marcos Ambrose could not help but hear them. When was he going to win a race in the Cup Series? And more to the point, when was the expertise Ambrose displayed on road courses in other series going to manifest itself in a trip to Victory Lane in NASCAR's highest national-touring series?
Ambrose delivered the answer in resounding fashion last August when he won the rain-delayed Cup race at Watkins Glen International. It was a watershed victory not only for Ambrose, but also for Richard Petty Motorsports -- which less than a year earlier had appeared to be in danger of going out of business.
"Any win is big for anybody," said Sammy Johns, director of operations for Richard Petty Motorsports. "But this team was really needing a win about that time last year."
Now Ambrose and RPM are back, and there is just one question this time around for the No. 9 Ford team as Sunday's Finger Lakes 355 At The Glen beckons. Can they do it again?
Expectations are high and for good reason. In four career Cup starts at Watkins Glen, Ambrose has not only the one win but a remarkable average finish of 2.2. He's also won three of four career starts in the Nationwide Series at the 2.45-mile track.
"It's obviously been a good track for me," Ambrose said.
Johns admitted the bar is high for Ambrose and the No. 9 team heading into Sunday. He wouldn't want it any other way because he knows it's a byproduct of the success forged by Ambrose in the past -- but Johns also warned against those who think a return trip to Victory Lane is any kind of a done deal.
"Marcos is one of the greatest road-course racers in all of the world, and you're expected to do well with him when you come here," Johns said. "It's really our job as a team, I say, to come here and block and tackle and not make mistakes.
"His record is phenomenal here, with the Nationwide and everything else. So it's definitely one where we're looking to cash in -- but these are hard races. Nothing in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series is guaranteed. You've still got to do your job all day. You've still got to make solid pit stops. The car has to mechanically be there all day. These things aren't easy to win. No matter how good you are, you still have to do your job all day and these races are long. That's what our focus has been -- to make sure everything is in place, and have a good solid day with no mistakes."
Ambrose said he learned earlier this season at Sonoma, the only other road course on the Cup circuit, that absolutely nothing is guaranteed. He won the pole for that race, but then battled an ill-handling car all day and ended up having to settle for an eighth-place finish.
"We just missed it for the race," Ambrose said. "We got the pole out there; it was my first pole position so we had a lot of car speed, but we couldn't find a happy medium for tire life. We could run really fast for three or four laps, but we weren't very good for 30 or 40 laps and we paid a price.
"We learned our lesson there. This track is completely different and I think the package we had last year worked well. We refined it and thought a lot about it and hopefully we'll be even faster this year."
Ambrose said the average observer has no idea about the levels of physical and mental toughness it takes to drive a road course such as Watkins Glen -- with its seven, sometimes sweeping turns and tricky inner-loop. He said it's very different than what the Cup drivers normally deal with while driving on ovals.
"There's a lot more going on as far as what you need to do behind the wheel," Ambrose said. "You've got a lot more braking and technique on the brakes as well as trying to keep the car from locking the tires up and downshifting, looking after the gear box, looking after the car. It's like you're trying to ride a bull and keep it somewhat under control. The car is really powerful and it wants to buck and kick and throw you off every corner and you've just got to manage that.
Happy Hour SpeedsComplete Speeds | Practice 1
Pos. Driver Speed Time 1. Ky. Busch 127.459 69.199 2. J. Montoya 127.446 69.206 3. C. Edwards 127.412 69.224 4. M. Ambrose 127.163 69.360 5. M. Truex 127.095 69.397
Race LineupComplete Lineup
Pos. Driver Speed Time 1. J. Montoya 127.020 69.438 2. Ky. Busch 126.928 69.488 3. J. Johnson 126.925 69.490 4. B. Keselowski 126.626 69.654 5. M. Ambrose 126.524 69.710
"You have to really control the brutality of a Sprint Cup car. I don't think anyone who has raced a car or has watched car racing can fully appreciate how difficult these Sprint Cup cars are to get around a road course. They're just really heavy, really powerful, with not enough brakes and not enough downforce. There's just a lot of stuff going on with a really small tire. The tire that we have on the car is very small compared to the weight we carry and that's what makes our sport so great. Whether it's road racing or Bristol or Michigan, it's man versus machine and it's a tough battle out there. It's really satisfying when it goes well and not so satisfying when it goes wrong -- and it could go wrong in a hurry."
Johns made it clear that he does not expect much to go wrong in Sunday's race, indicating that there is as much or more pressure on the No. 9 crew chief, veteran Todd Parrott, and the pit crew as there is Ambrose, who seems relaxed and supremely confident.
"When you come to a track like this, his confidence, his feel for what he looks for in the race car, it's just spot-on," Johns said. "He's really demanding in what he's looking for and the feel he's searching for in the race car. He's looking for a particular feel in that and he's really good at communicating that back to Todd, who then can get him the feel he's looking for. And once he gets it, man, he's going to go fast. You know that."
Last year's win is in the past, but Johns would argue it has helped RPM -- and the No. 9 team in particular -- make incremental gains this season. Johns insisted that hard luck in just three races (a late engine failure at Phoenix, an early wreck at Bristol, another mechanical failure in Charlotte) are the difference between Ambrose being where he currently is in the point standings, 18th, and battling for one of the wild-card berths in the Chase.
"It's been up and down this season," Johns said. "We need to get some better consistency. The 9 car has run real strong all year. We haven't capitalized on the finishes like we needed to. But from speed on the race track and running position, they've shown they can do it. Just if those three races had gone better, we could be sitting here 11th or 12th in the points with this car and continuing to battle for a spot in the Chase like we wanted to be. So we've got to do a better job of capitalizing."
That would include capitalizing this Sunday.
"Anytime you win -- I don't care where it's at -- that's definitely a springboard," Johns said. "Like I've said, you're never guaranteed to win. Everybody comes here and everybody says this is Marcos' one to win -- but it's never easy to win Cup races. If it was, he'd have a whole bunch of Cup victories. The whole team has to do their job, not just Marcos. Definitely Marcos is a great road racer. And if you give him the right equipment and do your job the right way all day, he's going to win with it.
"And anytime you win a race, it's a springboard for the team and the whole organization, not just the driver. Everybody's level of confidence is elevated and it gives everyone -- the driver, the crew chief, the pit crew, the guys at the shop -- that extra motivation to keep on doing well. That's why winning races is so important when you have the chance to do it."
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