Marcos Ambrose, driver of the No. 9 Mac Tools Ford Fusion for Richard Petty Motorsports, goes into this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway in 15th-place after four events. Ambrose and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer have high hopes for this season and while they admit the start to 2013 has been quiet, they don't expect it to remain that way.
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU CAN POINT TO FOR IMPROVEMENT? "All I can do is really look at myself and what I can do better, so I keep looking at that. For me, I need to know what I'm looking for and both weeks we've had here on handling race tracks I went into the race looking forward to it because I thought we had a pretty good package, and then we get in the race with this new car and it didn't turn out to be what we needed, so I've just got to know what I need to find in practice so we can be ready for the races."
DOES THIS NEW CAR HAVE A DIFFERENT FEEL FOR YOU? "It does have a different feel. Each track we go to is different and they've got different tires and different handling characteristics on them, so I would say it's been a surprise to me on how they've raced compared to how they've practiced. When you get all of that dirty air around you it does make a big difference."
YOU AND DREW HAVE BEEN TOGETHER FOR A LITTLE WHILE NOW. HOW IS THAT PROGRESSING? "We work well together. Drew is an A Grade crew chief, so I'm lucky to have him. We've got a good team here and now we just have to capitalize on it."
HOW DOES THE CALIFORNIA TRACK SUIT YOU? "It historically hasn't been one of my better places, but I got the pole at Michigan last year and I feel like I can drive those big tracks. We just have to get there and see how we shape up."
CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE DIFFERENCE IN SENSATION OF GOING FROM A HALF-MILE LIKE BRISTOL TO A TWO-MILE TRACK LIKE CALIFORNIA? "You still have to commit to the corner. The short tracks feel fasters than the big tracks, so for me the sensation of speed at a track like Bristol is high. When you get to Fontana it's not the speed that gets you, it's the ability to drive through any problems. A big corner like Fontana, you might have three or four handling characteristics throughout that corner and you've got to be able to stay in the gas and correct them as you go around, so, for me, that's the challenge of those big tracks is to carry the momentum and drive through any problems you've got to do the lap times."
WHERE DOES WINNING ON AN OVAL RANK ON YOUR BUCKET LIST? "Anywhere. I've got to win one, so it's definitely at the top of the bucket. Winning comes first and then making the Chase comes second and winning the championship sort of completes that sequence. You can't win a championship if you can't win a race, so that's where I'm at. We've just got to win."
DO YOU FEEL YOU'RE GETTING CLOSER TO THAT GOAL OF WINNING ON AN OVAL? "The last two weeks I haven't felt closer, but we'll keep striving towards it. We've got all of the ingredients to do it and it's my job to put it all together."
DO YOU FEEL WHILE TEAMS ARE STILL GETTING ADJUSTED TO THIS NEW CAR THAT YOUR OPPORTUNITY TO WIN IS BETTER NOW THAN LATER IN THE SEASON? "We thought it was, but we haven't capitalized yet. I've got a lot of trust and respect in Drew and my team and we'll just keep turning up each and every week with a mindset to win and hopefully we're good enough to do it."
DREW BLICKENSDERFER, Crew Chief - No. 9 Mac Tools Ford Fusion - MARCOS SAID THE START TO HIS SEASON HAS BEEN QUIET. DO YOU AGREE? "Yeah. At Daytona, honestly, we've had three races where one of them we didn't run real well at, which was Las Vegas. At Phoenix, we had a good car in practice and had a good deal going during the race and couldn't get the track position we needed, but we thought our car was good. Daytona, we were running third with 15 to go and with the cautions we had to restart on the inside and got stuck there, so we have performed better than our results have shown, but it's been quiet. We haven't broken parts. We haven't broken motors. We've built a solid point foundation that we can only get better with."
WAS IT A CONSCIOUS EFFORT AT THE START OF THIS SEASON TO CONCENTRATE ON COMPLETING ALL THE LAPS AND NOT DIGGING A HOLE EARLY? "Yes. When I started with Marcos with three races to go last year, we qualified in the top 15 at Texas and ran in the top eight before blowing a right-front with 50 to go. We had been in the top five, and then we sat on the outside pole at Homestead, so, initially, we clicked and we got speed. Then we went into this year saying, 'We're going to build all these brand new cars. Everything is new to us. Let's play the first part of the season fairly conservative so we can set a foundation to go into May, June and July.' Marcos, historically, has run very well once we get to Sonoma through Watkins Glen. That timeframe is his bread-and-butter. Anytime he's been in the Cup Series, regardless of the team or within our company, he's run really well during that time. The problem is he's 23rd or 24th in points when it gets to that point, so he can bump himself up to 16th and contend for the Chase. Our goal is to be in the top 16 or 17 going into that timeframe, bump us up into the top 12 and then, hopefully, get a win at a couple of races and you're in contention to make the Chase. Our goal was to makes sure we were five or six spots better in points than he started last year. So far we've done it. It's been quiet. We haven't made noise and people haven't looked at us and said, 'Oh my gosh, look how fast they are.' But if you look close during practice and at things like that, we've shown glimpses of speed. We were in the top 10 over the weekend at Bristol in practice and were third on lap tracker, so we've got some speed coming in our cars. We've taken an approach to make sure we don't wreck and make sure we don't break. We'll go for the wins here in a couple of weeks."
HAVE THERE BEEN ANY ISSUES AS FAR AS SETTING UP THIS NEW CAR? ARE YOU IN AN ADJUSTMENT PERIOD RIGHT NOW? "It is and I think it is throughout the garage. I think you'll see that throughout the first half of the season. You'll see during practice someone jump up to the top of the board, or a company hit on something real fast for one week. Going into Vegas we were pretty comfortable with our race car. The race started and we were way loose. We were like, 'Why was that?' But so was the 16, so was the 15, so was the 14 and we feel like we're pretty good at mile-and-a-half races, along with those guys, and, for some reason, something happened and we couldn't put our finger on it being a new car. So I think you'll see it for the first half of the season, where the green flag will drop and you'll see consistently good cars not run well, and you'll see some cars that you'll be scratching your head about what they hit on. I think a lot of times you didn't know it and you're gonna have to build a notebook and then be able to build on it for the next half of the year."
HOW DO YOU TEMPER THE DRIVE TO WANT INSTANT SUCCESS AND WIN RIGHT AWAY VERSUS THE BIGGER PICTURE OF TRYING TO GET THAT FIVE OR SIX SPOT IMPROVEMENT YOU JUST MENTIONED? "It's difficult. You want to win and you want to put yourself in position and saying we're trying to play conservative isn't saying we're trying to not win. If we get the chance this weekend, we'll go out and try to win. But if we have the chance to make a risky pit call at the end of the race and finish fifth versus a safe one and finish eighth, I'll take the eighth and being safe because the fifth could make you get wrecked or could cause you to go back to 15th. So we're playing the odds a little bit now compared to what we might later in the season when we risk a gamble, but it's difficult. You're a racer. You want to go out and win and you want to lead every practice, but, at the same time, you want to make sure you put yourself in position where you have a strong foundation, so when it comes September and you're going to Richmond, you're not just having a chance to make the Chase, you're in the Chase. That's the goal."
Richard Petty Motorsports