Daytona 500: Marcos Ambrose qualifying report

AMBROSE TO BECOME FIRST AUSTRALIAN TO RACE IN DAYTONA 500 Australian motor racing star Marcos Ambrose will become the first Australian driver to race in the world-famous Daytona 500 in the opening race of the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season...

AMBROSE TO BECOME FIRST AUSTRALIAN TO RACE IN DAYTONA 500

Australian motor racing star Marcos Ambrose will become the first Australian driver to race in the world-famous Daytona 500 in the opening race of the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season in Daytona Beach, Florida this weekend.

Ambrose will begin his first full-season in Sprint Cup, the top level of NASCAR, this weekend in what will be the biggest race of his career.

It was confirmed over the weekend that Ambrose's #47 entry of JTG Daugherty Racing would receive one of 35 guaranteed starting spots in the Daytona 500.

On Monday morning Australian time Ambrose posted the 30th fastest time in qualifying at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, which gives the 32-year-old the 14th starting spot in the first of two Gatorade Duel 'heat races' later this week.

Yesterday Ambrose was 21st and 26th fastest in the two practice sessions held at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, the first time Ambrose has driven around a properly sanctioned circuit since November due to the testing ban implemented by NASCAR over the off-season.

Ambrose is also the first Australian to race in any level of NASCAR full-time, and one of two foreign drivers to take a NASCAR victory (former Formula 1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya of Columbia has two NASCAR wins, both in 2007).

REGARDLESS OF RESULT -- BIGGEST EVER PAY-DAY --

Regardless of where Marcos Ambrose finishes the Daytona 500 this Sunday, he will earn the biggest-ever haul of prizemoney in NASCAR.

The Daytona 500 is not only the most prestigious stock car race in the world, it is also the most lucrative.

Last year veteran Kenny Wallace earned US$256,735 (A$382,509) for being classified in the 43rd and last position after completing 143 of the 200 laps, his race ending with engine failure.

2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman earned US$1,506,045 (A$2,253,846) for taking the victory.

The previous best prizemoney haul for Ambrose in a single race came in last year's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, where Ambrose and the #47 JTG Daugherty Racing entry picked up US$148,825 (A$221,734) for finishing in 18th place.

TWO AUSSIES ON RACE DAY AT DAYTONA --

Ambrose will not be the only Aussie in the limelight come race day at the Daytona 500.

Grammy Award winner and country music superstar, Australian Keith Urban, will perform at the Daytona 500 Pre-Race Show.

Urban is set to perform three of his eight #1 songs prior to the 51st annual Daytona 500.

Urban, who is the only artist to ever win both the CMA for Best New Artist and top honours as the Entertainer of the Year, has sold more than 10 million albums.

His eight #1 songs have collectively spent nearly 30 weeks on top of the Charts. Urban joins a long list of star-studded names that have performed in the Daytona 500 Pre-Race Show such as Brooks & Dunn, Bon Jovi, Kelly Clarkson, LeAnn Rimes and Mariah Carey.

Urban, originally from Caboolture in Queensland, is married to Australian actress Nicole Kidman, who is familiar to NASCAR fans from her starring role in the 1990 film 'Days of Thunder'.

THE START OF A NEW CHAPTER FOR AMBROSE --

Marcos Ambrose begins his first full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the top level of NASCAR, in the biggest race of them all, the Daytona 500, on February 15 in Daytona Beach, Florida

For Ambrose, it's the realisation of a dream that officially began in March 2005, when the two-time V8 Supercar champion announced his intention to move to the United States with his young family to pursue a career in NASCAR.

It has been a gradual climb for Ambrose, who made 22 starts in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2006 before two full seasons in the Nationwide Series, highlighted by his first NASCAR win last season at Watkins Glen.

After all the hard work, learning and sacrifices, Ambrose now embarks on his first full season in Sprint Cup, after 11 starts at Cup level last season, with a best finish of third place at Watkins Glen.

AUSTRALIAN SPORTING HISTORY IN THE MAKING --

Ambrose's start in the Daytona 500 will come just two weeks after Arizona Cardinals punter Ben Graham also etched his name into Australian sporting history.

Graham, a former AFL player with the Geelong Cats, made his own switch to US sport in 2004 and became the first Australian to compete in the biggest game in the NFL season, Superbowl XLIII, on 1 February 2009.

Like the Daytona 500, the Superbowl was staged in the state of Florida, in Tampa Bay.

Ambrose actually spoke with Graham about his move Stateside back at a function for the Ford Motor Company in 2004, which was a common sponsor of Graham and Ambrose.

"Ben Graham has come from AFL, which is our version of football in Australia," said Ambrose.

"He's had a lot of success. I sat down with him around 2004 at a function, and he was saying how he was coming over here to have a crack at it. So good luck to him because I know just how big a move that is.

"Unfortunalety for Ben, Arizona couldn't quite get across the line in the Superbowl, but it was a great game. Hopefully I can get the job done and win the 500 to make up for it --

"But I wouldn't put any bets on that. I think just the experience for me this first year is what it's all about. I just want to settle in, do the right thing and show everybody that I can do it."

Ambrose will become the first Australian to race in the world-famous Daytona 500 when he takes the green flag aboard the #47 Little Debbie machine of JTG Daugherty Racing.

NEW ERA FOR JTG DAUGHERTY RACING AND MICHAEL WALTRIP RACING --

The 51st running of the Daytona 500 marks the first official race in the technical alliance between JTG Daughtery Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing.

The deal, announced last September, sees Ambrose's #47 entry built and maintained out of the 140,000 square foot MWR facility in Cornelius, North Carolina.

Ambrose will keep Frankie Kerr as his Sprint Cup crew chief. Kerr, a former Sprintcar star himself, was Ambrose's crew chief with JTG Daugherty Racing and MWR for six Cup events last season. Kerr has a past relationship as a crew chief with MWR in 2007 with driver David Reutimann before joining JTGD in 2008.

The technical alliance also sees JTG Daugherty Racing switch from Ford machinery to Toyota. MWR was formed in 2007 to coincide with Toyota's entry into the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series.

GUARANTEED STARTS A RELIEF FOR AMBROSE --

As a result of the #47 entry being elevated into the Top 35 in Sprint Cup owner's points, Ambrose will not only have a guaranteed start in the Daytona 500, but the first five races of the 2009 season.

The #47 entry ended the 2008 season in 36th place in owner's points, but was elevated into the top 35 when the #41 of Chip Ganassi Racing was removed from contention as a result of that team's merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc. Unlike the #01 and #15 entries from DEI, the #41 was not transferred to another team.

At each Sprint Cup event, the top 35 car entries in owner's points are assured a start in the race regardless of their qualifying performance. The following eight spots are open to 'go or go home' entries, with one of the eight reserved for a past Sprint Cup champion if necessary.

The first five races of the 2009 season assure the top 35 from 2008 as the guaranteed entries, with the sixth race of the season in Martinsville going on 2009 owner's points.

"Qualifying in on speed to those Cup races is the most nerve-wracking thing I've done in my life," said Ambrose.

"I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."

RESTRICTOR PLATE RACING A THROW OF THE DICE --

Four times a season, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races on the 2.5-mile superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega.

The long straights and steep banking create a massive, flat-out challenge for drivers and teams and as such, NASCAR mandates that engine horsepower is cut at races on these two tracks to keep speeds under control.

With restrictor plates fitted between the engine manifold and carburettor to slow engine power, the racing tends to be tighter, tougher and closer, with cars drafting each other in a pack. At times, the entire 43-car field can run in one bunch, two, three or even four abreast.

This situation can sometimes lead to what is known as 'The Big One', where contact in the pack can lead to massive accidents that can effect up to half of the field.

WHAT MARCOS HAS TO SAY:

On the Daytona 500 --

"I have to pinch myself every day because it is the biggest race there is," said Ambrose.

"I'm really looking forward to my first Daytona 500 because it is huge for me personally to be able to experience firsthand. For years, I have read about the race in magazines while living in Australia and it intrigued me. I want to be able to finish it and finish well for Little Debbie and all of our sponsors. I'm proud to have them on board for my first Daytona 500."

"I'm just lucky to be here and I have always respected the Series, drivers and the teams.

"I never thought I'd be a driver or be talking about the Daytona 500 with my background and where I'm from. I just loved racing growing up and had a passion for it and I was just very competitive in general. I never dreamed that I would be racing, or coming into NASCAR. I'm grateful to Little Debbie, Kingsford Charcoal, Clorox, Bush's Beans, and JTG Daugherty Racing for making it possible.

On being locked into the Daytona 500 and the first five races of the season ...

"JTG Daugherty is still new to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series level and we are very fortunate to be a guaranteed starter.

"Being locked into the first five races is really going to really help set the stage for us. Luckily, things fell into place thanks to receiving help from Michael Waltrip Racing.

"At the end of last season, we were outside the top-35 by only 13 points, but with the merger of two teams and that organisation not fielding as many cars, it moved us up.

"Now, we are definitely going to start the first five races and that changes things up completely. I wouldn't give that feeling of trying to qualify a car to my worst enemy.

On the first race of the 2009 season ...

"This is our first race of our first season in Sprint Cup and it's the Daytona 500. It doesn't get any bigger than that.

"The first five races of the year are really the foundation that you build on for the rest of the season. It's very important to run well and put points on the board.

"I'm really looking forward to getting on track. I've really been focussed over the off-season and with no testing we really haven't had much track time.

"This is a big year for me, our sponsors and this whole team, so we're all very keen to get started. You can't help but excited by the prospect of racing in the Daytona 500, so I'm sure there will be some nerves before the race."

On the track --

"Daytona International Speedway has so much history and you can feel it when you drive into that place.

"I had no idea what it was all about until I had experienced it and seen the place first hand. Years ago, I didn't know what this style of racing was all about and how great it really is and how this place really does have something special about it. I mean, when you turn up here and you look at the banking, it is a special place.

"Daytona is obviously very fast, but it's one of the toughest tracks we go to in a season. It drives differently to Talladega and you are really on the edge through the turns.

"Obviously in the restrictor plate scenario, you are going to be in a pack more often than not, so you have to have your car set-up well enough to be able to run in the pack and stay in your groove.

"If you get too loose and get out of shape while you running, flat-out in the pack at Daytona, you can end up wrecking your car as well as 20 other guy's cars.

"If it looks easy running at Daytona, it definitely is not. It's tough, it takes a lot of concentration and it's very, very fast."

On his qualifying lap ...

"We've got a decent spot there for the Duels and we'll make it a good race car in drafting practice. Just a fun way to start the season.

"The Duel is my only chance to learn and get confidence in the pack and let people see that I'm going to be safe if I'm somewhere near the front. I'm just going to try to find a good hole and just be consistent so people know what I'm all about.

"It's surprising how they the Cup cars don't handle that well even in single car runs. Everyone is very aggressive in trying to get as much speed out of them. They are less stable than what I anticipated for a single car run. I'm looking forward to getting in the draft and seeing what I've got."

Q & A with MARCOS AMBROSE

Q: How will it feel to start the Daytona 500?

MARCOS AMBROSE: "We're going to be lining up for the 500, which is a huge relief. We support - Michael Waltrip Racing and JTG-Daugherty Racing supports - NASCAR's move and position with this stance. As it's played out here every team has earned their position in the top-35, three teams have dropped out in the off-season so it's natural that some get shifted up.

"We support the top-35 rule as well, it's designed to help protect full-time teams and sponsors have some security to their sponsors and to make the year work properly. I just feel quite lucky really, to be honest with you. Someone is looking after me, I'm not sure who it is, but their doing a good job."

Q: What are your thoughts about NASCAR's decision on the top-35 rule?

MARCOS AMBROSE: "With a situation like this, as far as I'm concerned, it's completely out of my hands and so whichever way the decision was going to go or will go doesn't change who I am and how I go about my racing. I'll just deal with the situation as it is.

"I've always said that I feel lucky to be in NASCAR and no matter what decision was made on the race track or off, I was just going to roll with it because I feel privileged to be here and that to me makes me sleep easy.

"Whichever way it goes I can only do what I do out there and I can just don't lose sleep on that kind of stuff. I've been a professional driver long enough to know that if you expect the worst at all times then when the good times roll it really is enjoyable."

Q: Did your team bring a 'qualifying' car to Daytona for this week?

MARCOS AMBROSE: "The last three or four days have been a bit of a panic. We were going to use the (Gatorade) Duel as a chance to really just grow into the car. I haven't driven a COT (Car of Tomorrow) on a superspeedway. I've only had a couple starts here at Daytona anyway so I am going to use the Duel really just to get into the groove and get confident and comfortable behind the wheel and just try to find some good drafting partners and let them know that I'm not an idiot out there. I will work with people if they want to.

"That was our intention and then three days ago or four days ago when it looked like it may have been swinging against us we started really then trying to re-focus on trying on getting a qualifying car, which is quite an aggressive set-up car.

"But now we are back in the race, so we'll just look to settle ourselves in during our Duel."

Q: What has it been like to work with Frankie Kerr?

MARCOS AMBROSE: "Frankie (Kerr, crew chief) is just a jewel and he's a wonderful guy. He's just great for our team. I think JTG Daugherty Racing is in a great position. We've got guys like Frankie (Kerr) behind us with a lot of experience and knowledge.

"We have just a wonderful technical alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing and effectively we're a third car for Michael Waltrip Racing and we've got a lot of support from all those guys over there as well. It's just a really good combination. It's just a great partnership, it's like a marriage and I think that's going to benefit all parties and I think we're in a great spot to take advantage of this year.

"There's a lot of turmoil and change in NASCAR and the economy and everything right now and I think we're in a position to really take advantage of all that. This Daytona 500 -- are we in or are we out thing -- is just really a blip in our overall goal and objectives for the year and I think we're going to have a stellar year and a breakout year for Michael Waltrip Racing and for JTG-Daugherty and I'm just really looking forward to getting the season started."

Q: How will you approach the first five races now that you are 'locked-in?'

MARCOS AMBROSE: "It really does change our whole outlook for the first five races. Like I said, we're in a great position with Michael Waltrip Racing and JTG-Daugherty -- I think we're a team that's really on the rise and going to take full advantage of the shake-up that's happened in NASCAR over the last three months.

"We support NASCAR's decision with the top-35 rule. As it's played out here, every team that's in the top-35 at this stage has earned their way in. They're in there on merits -- they're all full-time teams with full-time sponsors. I think it works out for the best, for all parties involved.

"We've got brand new sponsors here on our team -- Little Debbie, Kingsford, Clorox, Bush's Beans -- they're all brand new to the Sprint Cup level. We're bringing brand new sponsors to the Sprint Cup level when sponsors are at a premium and to be able to give them a full season is very important. I've also got my great personal sponsors, Jeld-Wen, so it's just a good situation for everyone."

Q: Is this the best opportunity you have had in your racing career?

MARCOS AMBROSE: "Absolutely no doubt, I'm in the best position I've ever been in my racing career and I just really feel privileged to be here at this point. I feel a little under-cooked, coming in I've had a few races at the Sprint Cup level last year, to know what to expect. I haven't driven a COT on many types of race tracks, short tracks and superspeedways -- the big ones are the ones that really stand out in my mind.

"I'm going to have to grow into the Sprint Cup level and I know I'm going to make mistakes, but I just really want to pay everybody back for the choices I've made that have put me in this ride. There's a lot of people that have made choices to let me get this far in NASCAR and I just want to pay them back. I want to make them proud of the choices they've made and that's what I'm focused on.

"I'm not looking at top-10s, top-fives, wins or anything like that -- that's not important to me. What's important is that I make the people that have made the choices getting here -- I want to make them feel good. I want to make them feel good about the chance they've given me to start."

Q: How do you think you have earned the opportunities you have had in racing?

MARCOS AMBROSE: "My whole career has been, 'Why me?' I feel like I'm no better than the guys I was racing go-karts with when I was 13. I just feel like someone's looking out for me and I just try my very best -- I commit to myself, I commit to everybody that helps me and I just try to be myself.

"I think I've got a point of difference, I'm from Australia, which I thought was going to be a draw back when I first came here, but it may well prove to be a benefit. I've been well-accepted in NASCAR and I've just been able to survive. Kenny Schrader told me when I first came here, he said, 'Marcos, if you just don't cause trouble, you'll hang around for a while.' So I just try my very best not to cause trouble.

"Sometimes it's inevitable, but I just try to do the right thing as often as I can to everybody -- to the fans, to the other drivers, to NASCAR, to my sponsors -- I just try to do the right thing."

Q: What will it be like for you on the starting grid of the Daytona 500?

MARCOS AMBROSE: "I just can't wait. I'm so looking forward to it -- just the anticipation of my first 500 start is something that I've aspired to for so long and I dream of and I just can't wait for the day. It's going to be a great day and that's the best part of any race is that three minutes before they tell you to start the engines. You're on the grid, the crowd's there, you can hear them because you haven't got your helmet on and just the anticipation of what's about to start. I'm just looking forward to that chance to experience it."

Q: Are you where you want to be in racing?

MARCOS AMBROSE: "I'm where I want to be. I'm in a great spot with my team and the sponsors and the help from Michael Waltrip Racing -- it's a dream chance, it's a dream run I've had in NASCAR. I've been in NASCAR for three years and here I am talking to you as a Sprint Cup driver.

"It's a meteoric rise and I still ask myself every morning, 'How did this happen?' It's like I've done this before in my career. I managed to make a career back in Australia and won a championship or two and still wonder how that happened. Here I am in NASCASR four years later and feel privileged to be here today with just a great opportunity.

"I've got a chance to really cement myself. I said to Frankie Kerr, my crew chief, that this is either the beginning or the beginning of the end because there's no way to hide at this level. When you get to Sprint Cup and you're up against (Dale Earnhardt) Jr. and Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and everyone, the whole field is just supremely talented and high quality teams.

"There's just nowhere to hide and I'm looking forward to that chance to really prove or disprove who I am as a NASCAR driver. Whichever way works out I'm cool with it too. If you get into the season and get toward the end there and don't show the promise that's needed, I'll be the first to put my hand up and say, 'I did the best I could.'"

Q: How does NASCAR compare to other racing series you have competed in around the world?

MARCOS AMBROSE: "NASCAR is so big and the sport is just so big that everything else just pales into insignificance -- it really does. This is by far my biggest achievement -- to be here today talking to you guys. It's my biggest achievement in racing. Forget winning races and winning championships, I think just getting this far in a sport like NASCAR is massive.

"I've come from a long way away -- I've come from the other side of the world in a place called Tasmania, which wouldn't even know what a stock car was five years ago and I've travelled a long way, I've committed a lot with my family and my friends and here we are."

-credit: ma/bam

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing , JTG Daugherty Racing , Michael Waltrip Racing