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CALIFORNIA THE NEXT STEP IN EARLY SEASON GOAL FOR AMBROSE -- Marcos Ambrose will embark on the next step in his first goal of the season when he takes the green flag for the Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California ...

CALIFORNIA THE NEXT STEP IN EARLY SEASON GOAL FOR AMBROSE --

Marcos Ambrose will embark on the next step in his first goal of the season when he takes the green flag for the Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California this weekend.

While the attention was on Ambrose's history making efforts last week -- he became the first Australian to start the Daytona 500 in its 51-year history -- his 17th place finish represented a solid foundation for the 32-year-old to base his first season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Ambrose is focused on putting himself in a strong position early in the season, keen to post solid points-scoring finishes in the first five races of the season with the aim being well inside the top 35 in Owner's Points by the sixth race of the year and therefore avoiding the prospect of having to qualify for races on speed.

A solid result at the 2-0-mile Auto Club Speedway will be a major step in the right direction in terms of this goal, with guaranteed starting positions giving teams enormous stability both on and off the track.

FONTANA FIRST CUP DOUBLE-UP --

The Auto Club 500 will be Ambrose's 13th Sprint Cup points race and the first time he will make a Sprint Cup start on a track for the second time.

Ambrose made his penultimate appearance for Wood Brothers Racing last year at the 2.0-mile speedway, finishing in 32nd place.

Ambrose has strong Nationwide Series form at the venue formerly known as California Speedway, with each of his four starts netting him a top 25 finishing position the best of which was 13th place in the Fall race of 2007.

TECHNOLOGY KEEPS AMBROSE FAMILY IN TOUCH --

For this early part of the season, Marcos' three special ladies -- wife Sonja and daughters Tabitha and Adelaide -- remain back in Australia with family and friends until returning to the United States in two weeks.

But even while they spend February apart, the family are still in touch every day and thanks to the internet they are practically as close to the action as Ambrose's own crew chief, Frankie Kerr.

"They've been watching me on television back home in Australia," said Ambrose.

"During the race, Sonja is able to listen into the radio communication between me and my team on the computer thanks to NASCAR.com. The Trackpass Scanner function allows people listen in on my radio.

"I can wish them well and say hi before the start of a race and that's incredible. Also, we have a web cam set up so I can see the children and talk to my wife Sonja on a daily basis.

"I miss them, but we've found unique ways to stay in touch constantly. I am really looking forward to them coming back in a couple weeks.

"It's a pretty cool set-up for the girls. They kind of live an endless summer, with the times we travel between the US and Australia."

MWR EXPERIENCE HELPFUL FOR AMBROSE --

Michael Waltrip has 726 career Sprint Cup starts, with over 1000 starts across all three of NASCAR's championship divisions. Reutimann, on the other hand, is closer to Ambrose's end of the spectrum with 64.

It gives Ambrose two unique perspectives to seek for guidance and support as he embarks on his first full season in the top level of NASCAR.

Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner who co-founded Michael Waltrip Racing in 2007, has seen just about everything there is to see in terms of NASCAR. Meanwhile, Reutimann was a rookie not that long ago, running his first full Sprint Cup season in 2007, so therefore knows all too well the journey upon which Ambrose is embarking in 2009.

It is not just his two MWR 'stable-mates' that can act as a sounding board for Ambrose this season. Michael Waltrip Racing boasts over 200 employees at its 142,000 square foot facility in Cornelius, North Carolina.

AUSTRALIAN EYES ON CALIFORNIA ON MONDAY MORNING --

There will be a lot of attention on the state of California on Monday morning Australian time.

While Marcos Ambrose will be making his second Sprint Cup start for the season at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on the outskirts of Los Angeles, fellow Aussie Hugh Jackman will be preparing to host the 81st Academy Awards from the Kodak Theatre.

Australian support will be for the late Australian actor Heath Ledger, who is nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of 'The Joker' in The Dark Knight.

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES QUALIFYING PROCEDURE EXPLAINED --

While the Daytona 500 adopts a unique qualifying procedure of its own, the remaining points races in the Sprint Cup Series all follow the same system.

And with qualifying to be televised both in the United States and Australia in 2009 it is worth taking the time to know exactly how NASCAR sets the field each week.

Firstly, the top 35 cars in Sprint Cup Owner's Points are guaranteed a start at each race. Owner's Points are points allocated to the car's entrant (or car number). So in theory, a team can be well outside the top 35 in the driver's standings as a result of sharing a car amongst several drivers, but still be well inside the top 35 in owner's points. This was the case last season when Mark Martin and Aric Almirola shared the #8 car.

For the first five races of each season, the final owner's points from the previous year determine the 35 guaranteed starting spots for each race. From the sixth race onwards, the current year's owner's points are used from race-to-race.

Marcos Ambrose's #47 entry finished the 2008 season in 36th place in owner's points as a result of that team effectively replacing the third entry of Michael Waltrip Racing. In the lead-up to Daytona, NASCAR confirmed that the #47 had been elevated to 35th in the 2008 owner's points as a result of the #41 entry being dissolved due to the merger between Chip Ganassi Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc.

So, Ambrose is locked into the first five races of this season, with his next priority to put the #47 safely in the top 35 in 2009 owner's points so that qualifying on speed is not a concern for he and his team come the sixth race of the season in Martinsville, or at any race this year for that matter.

For those outside the top 35 in owner's points, there are still eight positions up for grabs at each race and they are determined as follows:

- the fastest seven cars in qualifying that are outside the top 35 in owner's points make the field

- the final position in the race is reserved for the most-recent past Sprint Cup champion (driver) that has not qualified for the race. If there is no such driver, the eighth fastest car in qualifying that is outside the top 35 in owner's points gets the position.

While these rules determine who starts each race, the starting order is still determined by qualifying speeds.

WHAT MARCOS HAS TO SAY:

On the track --

"Auto Club Speedway is a great place to race and it's a tough track with a lot of character," said Ambrose.

"The turns are nice and wide and it gives you a few options in terms of lines. But it is one of those places where if you have a good car you can really get amongst it and pass a lot of cars -- and if your car is not happy then you can be in for a long race.

"Shock packages are essential. I'm grateful I have some laps there in a Cup car as well as four Nationwide races under my belt.

"It's the first time I've run at the same track twice at the Cup level. It's not a massive thing but every little bit helps. At least I know what the place looks like and the character of the track. We hope to leave there with a strong finish."

On the race --

"Now we turn our focus to Auto Club Speedway and even better results so we're setting the bar even higher," said Ambrose.

"The February race in California has one major difference from the September race -- the heat," said Ambrose.

"When we go back there later in the year it can hit over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and in the blazing California sun that is very, very hot.

"Daytona is such an enormous event and it has a feeling and a race format all of its own. You're on track for a week and the qualifying system with the Duels means it's really quite unique, and restrictor plate races always throw up some different scenarios.

"So getting to California is like 'getting down to business' in some ways. Getting momentum early in the season is quite important, which makes running well at Fontana pretty crucial.

"We want to run well and keep growing as a team. To post another solid result here and have a good points day puts us another step closer to being well inside the top 35 by the sixth race, so bringing the Little Debbie car home in one piece and in a strong position is important."

AND A WORD FROM #47 CREW CHIEF FRANKIE KERR --

"We finished in the top 20 and now we will aim for a top 15 finish," said Kerr.

"Then we'll go after a top-10, a top-five and ultimately, a win. Obviously, you aim to win every week, but you have to crawl before you walk.

"This weekend, the biggest thing we will focus on is shock combinations because the track is getting rougher. We'll do a lot with shock combos and bump stops. That's really important this weekend."

-credit: ma/bam media

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Michael Waltrip , Marcos Ambrose , Aric Almirola
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing , Michael Waltrip Racing