Marcos Ambrose and the No. 9 Stanley Ford team earned the team's second consecutive top-five finish of the 2012 season with a fifth-place finish in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400. The effort began with an eighth-place starting position after the team turned in its second straight strong qualifying effort at Michigan International Speedway, where the team earned the pole in June.
Just a few laps into Sunday's 400-mile race, Ambrose reported to crew chief Todd Parrot that his Stanley Ford was loose as he was jostled back to 19th in the pack. But the first caution of the day - on Lap 5 when David Gilliland spun through the grass - came too early in the event to bring the car to pit road. Adjustments had to wait until the first green-flag pit stop of the afternoon, which came on Lap 34 for the No. 9 team. Knowing tire wear would not be much of an issue on the recently repaved surface, Parrott ordered right-side tires only, fuel and a wedge adjustment to help tighten up the car.
After returning to the track in the 23rd position, Ambrose told his crew chief that he didn't feel the adjustment helped the car and that he really needed rear grip. Despite the free condition of his Ford Fusion, Ambrose's lap times were improving, and by Lap 59 he had moved up to 16th position. A multi-car accident and second yellow flag of the day at Lap 64 gave the team another chance to work on their machine. Bringing the car down pit road on Lap 69, the team went with another two-tire change and a trackbar adjustment and reversed the previous wedge adjustment.
Ambrose continued to climb the board, moving up to the 12th spot by Lap 76 when the third caution came out for a spinning Regan Smith. The team elected to maintain track position and stay out on track. Ambrose had advanced to 11th by the time the fourth caution came out just a few laps later on Lap 88 when Joey Logano hit the wall. This time, Parrott called his driver down pit road - but only to fill up the gas tank as Ambrose said he was happy with the balance of the car.
He took the ensuing restart in the 16th position but didn't stay there for long. With his Stanley Ford handling better than it had earlier in the race, Ambrose began passing cars one by one until he was back in the top 10 by Lap 110. As the green-flag pit cycle started for much of the field, the No. 9 Ford climbed as high as second position before finally peeling off for his fourth pit stop of the day on Lap 125. Knocking out a fast, routine stop, the Stanley crew changed four Goodyears and filled up the tank with Sunoco fuel, sending Ambrose back into the pack to gain more ground.
Pitting on a different sequence from many of his competitors worked to Ambrose's advantage. On the fifth of eight cautions, he was running in 13th and able to stay out while others had to come to pit road, giving him another boost up the leaderboard and setting him up to take the Lap 140 green flag in the fifth position. But after their last green-flag stop of the day on Lap 164, the team's pit sequence cycled them back to 15th.
The last 30 laps of the race gave the team the chance to use their fast Stanley Ford and smart pit strategy to climb the leaderboard one last time. Up to 10th position by Lap 180, Ambrose stayed out on track when others pitted after Trevor Bayne brought out the seventh caution on the day. The decision put him in seventh position for the restart and ready to make what he thought would be his last green-flag charge. But the wreck-filled race saw one last yellow flag fly on Lap 195, setting up a green-white-checkered finish.
Sitting in the sixth position, Ambrose and Parrott knew they had a car deserving of a top-five finish. They stayed out on track, ready to get all they could out of the final two laps of the race. When the green flag flew on Lap 199, Ambrose charged hard, gaining one more position to cross the line in fifth and follow-up last week's Watkins Glen win with a top-five finish at Michigan.
Ambrose remains in 17th in the driver point standings, just 11 points behind 16th.
Ambrose's Thoughts after Racing at Michigan:
"It is a great day for the Stanley Ford team and everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports. Todd Parrott made some great calls today. We had a plan with tire strategy going into the race and it worked our way. A few more laps and we would have had something for them. We had a great car, we just couldn't quite get enough track position at the end. We had as good a car as anyone out there today."
The No. 43 crew aimed to help him out on their first pit stop of the day on Lap 34, bringing him down pit road under green-flag conditions for right-side tires with an air-pressure adjustment, a turn of the trackbar and fuel. A few short laps later, Almirola reported back to his crew chief that changing only two tires contributed to the tightness of the car.
The Lap 64 caution gave the team a second opportunity to make adjustments to loosen up the car for the driver. After communicating to Ford how difficult it had become to pass under tight conditions, Almirola came to the pits on Lap 69, where Ford ordered four tires, fuel, and air-pressure and track bar adjustments. Restarting 22nd, Almirola radioed a short time later that the changes helped the car to turn better and he soon climbed up to the 19th position.
Plenty of cautions provided plenty of chances to work on the car's handling, and soon on Lap 88 the yellow flag waved again. With Almirola explaining that his car would start a run a little loose and get tighter as it ran, Ford brought him to pit road for another track bar adjustment and fuel. The changes seemed to keep the car's handling moving in the right direction, as Almirola was once again passing cars and had climbed to the 16th position by Lap 110.
A lengthy mid-race green-flag run gave the driver and crew chief time to assess their car and plan their next stop. They decided to keep adjusting in the same direction, and on their next green-flag stop on Lap 126, brought the car in for additional track bar and air-pressure adjustments along with four tires and fuel. Back on track in the 19th spot, Ford told Almirola he was running top-10 lap times. Staying out on the next caution on Lap 134, the No. 43 entered the top 10 to restart ninth. Another caution on Lap 142 brought another decision not to pit, and Almirola advanced one more position to eighth.
It was on this next green-flag run that Almirola reported his Ford Fusion was suddenly loose, a condition that Ford attributed to the track dryers blowing the rubber off the track during the previous caution period. The change in handling had the No. 43 back in 14th position at Lap 148. Two final pit stops on Laps 165 and 182 brought final changes to set the car up for what would be a green-white-checkered finish. Taking the final green flag in 13th position, Almirola was pushed up into the wall off Turn Two on the restart by another car. He was able to save the car, but the hit made him lose momentum. Almirola was able to hold on with the damaged car for a 20th-place finish.
Almirola remains 21st in the point standings heading to Bristol next week.
Comments from Almirola after Michigan:
"I've got to hand it to this 43 team. They worked so hard this weekend. And even with the trouble we had, we had a pretty good back-up car that was pretty fast in clean air. Obviously, we want to do better, but a top-20 sure isn't bad considering what we went through this weekend. The last restart we just got pushed up into the wall and just lost what we had gained. That was really frustrating after having a strong run all afternoon."
Source: Richard Petty Motorsports