WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.--The road course at Watkins Glen is known for its changes in elevation.
In figurative terms, Marcos Ambrose is all too familiar with the highs and lows the 2.45-mile track can deliver.
The high points of Ambrose’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career came at the Glen, with consecutive victories in 2011 and 2012. In Sunday’s Cheez-It 355, Ambrose started from the pole and appeared head for a third straight win but the final 30 laps were all downhill for the talented Australian driver.
Through no fault of his own, Ambrose was caught out when NASCAR called a caution on Lap 60. Those who had pitted a lap or two earlier--among them race winner Kyle Busch and runner-up Brad Keselowski--benefited from the same yellow that mired Ambrose in 12th place for a restart on lap 64.
In five previous Cup starts at the Glen, Ambrose had finished no worse than third.
Ambrose also was party to an earlier accident that damaged the cars of Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth. Because Ambrose’s car wouldn’t launch, Kenseth ran into him coming up through the esses on Lap 81.
The contact sent Kenseth’s Toyota into Kahne’s Chevy and knocked Kahne into the path of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Earnhardt.
"Something was wrong with the car, and I just couldn’t get going," Ambrose said ruefully after the race. "I could feel on the roll-around lap that something had broken, but I just feel bad for the guys who got caught up in all that mess. That’s not the way we wanted our day to finish."
Ambrose led 51 of the first 61 laps before the inopportune caution started his downward slide.
"Yeah, that’s just the way it goes," Ambrose said. "It wasn’t our day, but we’ve had plenty of good days here. We just need to reflect on this, and we’ll wake up tomorrow and just press on and go to the next one."
Papis is Solid Sub
Max Papis’ debut as a relief driver for Tony Stewart may not have gone as well as the Italian driver would have liked, but his solid 15th-place finish in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet SS kept the car in the second provisional wild-card spot for the owners’ Chase.
Yes, Papis spun after contact from Greg Biffle late in the race, an incident that perhaps cost him a top-10 result. And Papis turned the struggling car of Marcos Ambrose on Lap 85 to trigger the final caution of the race.
Nevertheless, when asked, the ever-positive Papis gave the effort a grade of A-plus.
"I felt that we were definitely bound to have a top-10 finish, "Papis said. "Really glad that Greg Biffle came over and apologized when he turned me around--he said it was totally his mistake. I think that really cost us a solid top 10.
"Besides this, I drove the wheels off the car every lap. Super proud of keeping the seat of Smoke as warm as I could. I felt I did a pretty good job, and I’m proud of myself."
Disaster for Gordon
Fighting a car whose handling wasn’t to his liking, Jeff Gordon wrecked near the end of the esses on Lap 14 and put his chances of qualifying for the Chase in serious jeopardy.
"It’s unfortunate," said the four-time champion, who fell four spots to 13th in the standings and doesn’t have a victory to establish a claim on a wild-card berth. "I had a big run on the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin), and I got up on him, and the nose just completely took off and put me in the wall."
"Fight hard," he said. "Just keep working to go to the next race and qualify better, execute better and not make mistakes. That was my mistake. That was on me today. We can’t have stuff like that happen."
By Reid Spencer - NASCAR Wire Service