Ingram's Flat Spot On Ambrose's Agony by Jonathan Ingram Pity the poor Marcos Ambrose. No matter how one chooses to describe it, losing the lead under the final caution in the Sprint Cup race at the Infineon Raceway is likely to follow him...
Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
Pity the poor Marcos Ambrose.
No matter how one chooses to describe it, losing the lead under the final caution in the Sprint Cup race at the Infineon Raceway is likely to follow him as surely as the error by England's goal keeper Robert Green in the first round of the World Cup against the United States. Like Green, who was replaced in England's next match, Ambrose will not soon have another chance to win in NASCAR's premier series.
In racing terms, Ambrose made the worst mistake under the pace car in the Sprint Cup since Buddy Baker hit the pace car and crashed while leading at the Texas World Speedway. It happens to the best of them, sometimes. More recently, Mark Martin had a Nationwide Series race won at the Bristol Motor Speedway behind the pace car -- until he took his car to the garage one lap early.
You've got to feel for Aussie Ambrose. Guys like Baker, one of six drivers to win NASCAR events at the Texas track, and Martin were both in position to win subsequent races shortly after understandable, if unusual, bonehead errors. They could quickly leave a bad memory behind, footnotes to many years in the trenches.
But for Ambrose and the team owned by Tad and Jodi Geshickter and Brad Daugherty there may not ever be a chance as good as the one that got away in Sonoma. An inaugural Sprint Cup win, the first victory by an Australian driver and a chance to celebrate in California wine country are rare events in the NASCAR realm. All brought down by an engine that wouldn't refire after Ambrose began coasting behind the pace car with six laps to go.
So what went wrong? In the post-race, post-haste, Ambrose acknowledged he'd been told to save fuel. Nothing unusual there. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (at Michigan in 2008) and Greg Biffle (at Kansas City in 2007) have both coasted behind the pace car in order to win races in the not-too-distant past. Earnhardt Jr. coasted past the pace car on occasion and Biffle was a little slow behind the pace car. But none came to a complete stop as did Ambrose on the big shoulders of Sonoma's Turn 1.
Was this a case of too many cooks in the kitchen? Was Ambrose asked to do something that was unnecessary -- however smart the strategy might have been. Did he decide for himself to save fuel by shutting off the engine instead of just balloon-footing it? Having short-pitted with 30 laps to go, shouldn't Ambrose have taken on board enough fuel to run to the finish plus three green-white-checkers? Given the subsequent number of caution laps, fuel definitely should not have been an issue. Yet, the driver was asked to save fuel under the caution.
Was Crew Chief Frankie Kerr's three pit stop strategy as much about fuel consumption issues as it was about fresh Goodyear tires? Time will tell, but it's seems like there was as much a problem with the car as with the driver.
As for NASCAR, how can the sanctioning body do anything other than put Ambrose's Toyota back in line at the place where the car re-fired and began moving up the hill once again?
In any event, Ambrose was masterful in getting the No. 47 Clorox/Kleenex entry to the front in the late stages of the race. Crew Chief Kerr's strategy of three stops actually forced the hand of eventual winner Jimmie Johnson and Crew Chief Chad Knaus, who did likewise. Then the No. 47 crew made the most of the crucial last pit stop to get their man back onto the track in front of Johnson -- after a chassis adjustment that made Ambrose virtually untouchable once he returned to the lead.
And then... .
Since JTG/Daugherty Racing shares space, cars, technology and information with Michael Waltrip Racing and it buys stout engines from Toyota Racing Development, the team is not necessarily a forlorn single car effort. But in the larger scheme of the Sprint Cup, this group is not going to be a contender on a weekly basis -- especially if the 15 previous races of this season on ovals are any indication.
As for the Green analogy, Ambrose's situation at Infineon shares a lot with the goal keeper's problems in South Africa. The driver put the team in position to win the race, just as Green's later save kept England in the match against the U.S. And clearly, there were other factors at work at the No. 47 team just as England's anemic offense left much to be desired.
There have been other big, as in colossal, gaffes in NASCAR history, the Infineon Raceway notwithstanding. In 2001 Robby Gordon gave away a potential first career victory to Tony Stewart, because he wouldn't let the lapped Chevy of Kevin Harvick through. (Gordon took his first victory at New Hampshire later that same year in the Chevy of Richard Childress Racing.)
At least Ambrose made his error in a non-championship situation without a Sprint Cup or a World Cup on the line. Many a driver has made mistakes coming during the stretch run for championships or during the more recent Chase for the Championship. But no mistake will likely be more painful than those of a man looking at his first Sprint Cup win while cheek-by-jowl to the same Pacific Ocean that surrounds his home in Tasmania only to have it come to a grinding halt because the engine won't re-fire while trundling along behind the pace car.
In any language, it's still the same. Arrrgggghhhh!
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.