Not as many NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams turn to “road course ringers” anymore when the circuit heads to the road courses of Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International and Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, but there are a few Cup regulars that have the left and right prowess of said “ringers,” including Marcos Ambrose, driver of the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford.
The Sprint Cup Series heads to Sonoma this weekend for Sunday’s Toyota Save Mart 350 — the first of two road course races of the 36-race season. Ambrose hasn’t won in Cup competition at Sonoma, but he’s been good there and at the other road course, Watkins Glen. He’s made two trips to victory lane at Watkins Glen (2011 and 2012). He also has four wins in Nationwide Series competition, all on road courses.
Earlier this week, Ambrose participated in a NASCAR teleconference to preview this weekend’s race at Sonoma. Here’s what he had to say:
Q. Because you perform exceptionally well on road course races, do you prepare differently for this weekend compared to any other racetracks?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Not really. My natural skill set obviously is road racing. I’m quite confident on the ovals but haven’t had the same success I’ve had on the road courses. Really it’s just the years of training. It’s my niche.
I feel very comfortable road racing. I feel like I can apply myself well on the weekend. The biggest thing I try to do on a buildup to a weekend like this, there’s pressure building, there’s a chance to lock yourself into the Chase, which would make your season, you get a chance to win a Sprint Cup race, which you don’t get to do very often. What I do this weekend is not try to think about it, be normal, try to relax leading into this week.
It’s always a pressure-filled environment. The more you think about it, the worse you tend to go. I try to rely on my instincts there.
I don’t do anything special this week in preparation for it. But I also know there’s a lot on the line and that pressure is all present. Whatever you can do to try to minimize the pressure is a good thing.
Q. If you’re able to win this weekend and lock yourself into the Chase, what would that mean to you and your race team?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Well, it certainly would make our year. We know our year is not complete if you can’t make the Chase. It’s like you haven’t qualified for the finals.
I haven’t made it to the Chase yet. This format will give us our best chance to do it, if we can win a race at either Watkins Glen or Sonoma. We know that. It would really make our year, no doubt about it. It would certainly make our sponsors and Richard Petty very happy.
We can’t do anything but go out there and try and do it. Talking isn’t going to get it done. But we all know what is at stake. I think our team has prepared the car as best we can and I’m as ready as I can be and we’ll see if we can get it done.
Q. The new aero rules, tire rules, how do you expect the new rules to have an impact on the road course?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Yeah, it’s a really good question. We certainly have seen on the ovals that the teams are trying to get the car down low, they’re trying to take full advantage of that aero platform, getting very stiff setups under the car to do that.
We don’t know really how it’s going to fall here at the road race because we have different issues road racing. We can’t necessarily get the car as low as we do on an oval because we have curves to consider, we have a lot change in forces on the brakes through acceleration, which is going to make the car pitch. You need some of that movement in the car to really make the car handle well. You don’t want to make it too stiff, otherwise you wear your tires out too fast.
I think there’s going to be different strategies going into this weekend. I’m going to be one of the drivers that has a keen eye on the attitude of the car in pit lane, down the garage area, looking at what teams are doing to go fast. We’re going to have to work it on the fly.
We have a certain direction we’re going to head down. I’m not saying it’s right. The opening of the rules, the ability to set the car height-wise wherever you want it will certainly change the setup at Sonoma and I’ll be interested to see what works out.
Q. Does the extra downforce help a guy like you or does it more even up the field?
MARCOS AMBROSE: We did the test out there for Goodyear. Really the track didn’t feel that much different. I know there is more downforce in the car, but the balance is the same, the struggles are the same around there. You’re always looking for grip. You’re always looking to get good ride quality over the curves.
The biggest thing for us is tire loss. I’ve had the fastest car out there the last two years, but not for 10 laps in a row. We’ve always been fast for a few laps, but I always wear the tires out fast.
Our focus this year is to really look after those tires. The downforce I thought was really going to help that, but the test, it didn’t feel like it was much different.
Q. Can you describe the challenge of maintaining speed over a long run there at Sonoma. You said you guys have been fast for a shorter spell. I know everybody falls off. The rate is a little bit different for you guys than some others.
MARCOS AMBROSE: Yeah, that’s certainly the case. It’s a combination of a lot of factors. Certainly the car has got a lot of power so it’s really hard to keep the rear tires. You can burn them up so quick.
Second thing, the car is really heavy, one of the heaviest racecars you’ll ever see. We don’t have enough tire patch on the ground. The tires are probably too small for the weight we’re carrying. The brakes are small, so we get a lot of temperature in the brakes which gets transferred into the tires. You have a lot of factors in the car itself to burn tires up.
Then you combine that with the track at Sonoma. It’s one of the tightest, most challenging tracks you can go to which is very hard on tires, too. It has an exceptional level of grip. You have all these factors coming together that make tire life a real challenge around there.
I haven’t found the magic to make our tires last there. Certainly it’s the biggest question mark going into this year’s race for me.
I know we’re going to go fast. I know we have the ability to qualify on the front row. Do we have enough durability to make the tires last for a full fuel run? I think you saw last year only a handful of teams were able to get that. Every year some team seems to have a clear advantage than others. Hopefully we can be that team this year.
It’s certainly a gray area going into the race and I’m concerned about it. If we’re going to lose the race, it will be because we can’t keep the tires underneath us.
Q. With being able to do the tire test, I’m sure you’re on different sorts of tires, but I guess you were on the tires that were going to be run this weekend. Did that help you or further muddle the thoughts of how to make those tires last?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Yeah, certainly we were happy to go for Goodyear when they asked us to go out there because we thought it could be a small advantage to find out what they tried to bring back to the track. I know the combination of tires they had there were a mixed bag between grip and durability and loss. They were chasing the tire to last longer, which is a good thing.
We set our car up the same from the very first lap to the last lap so Goodyear can get a good reference on the different tires construction and codes, to give them the best feedback. We didn’t necessarily get an advantage on what we need to go back there. It was just good to actually see what Goodyear were trying to do so we can try to mirror what their efforts are to our setups.
We learned some. We were chasing the weather there some, got rained out, which hurt us for track time. I certainly think it didn’t hurt us being out there and helping Goodyear do that tire test.
Q. Do you think road course racing should be added to the Chase or the Sprint Cup given there’s different types of racing elsewhere?
MARCOS AMBROSE: I get this question every year, and it’s always around the time we go road racing. People seem to ask the same thing.
I’m not going to second guess what NASCAR are doing. They’ve got a Chase format. They’ve built this sport up to what it is today.
The idea of the Chase is to find the best driver and team for the year, allow them to race for the championship.
There is an argument to say if you want to be the complete package, you have to be good on road courses as well. But I’m happy with the schedule.
If I can win a race here road racing, it’s going to lock me in the Chase, it’s a real win for me.
Would I like to see more road races? I think the fans need to be asked that question, not the drivers. Really our sport is about the fans, what they like to see.
Anecdotally, there’s always a huge crowd at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. They seem to get good ratings on TV. There is an argument there you could have more road races in the schedule. But certainly I’m not the one promoting that. I’ll just let NASCAR make their choices.
Q. You take in some races at Millbridge Speedway. What draws you there?
MARCOS AMBROSE: I’ve actually got a small engine I’ve been developing for Grassroots Racing. It’s a small four-stroke engine that I’ve built up over the last couple years trying to gear for the Grassroots race, a cheaper alternative to have more power, more fun and more reliability.
We’ve been going out to some dirt tracks. Woodlief and Millbridge are the two tracks we’ve got the engine being sampled this year. So I’ve been going up there and seeing how my engines are running.
It’s been a hobby that turned into a project that’s turned into a semi-business. It’s one of those deals where I really have a passion for it and I want to go out there and help the junior racers and amateur racers have a better product, something that they can have more fun with.
I’m certainly happy with how it’s going, though it’s certainly in very early phases here. We’re not releasing the engine to anywhere but locally to make sure I keep my eyes on the engine and fix any problems when they arise.
Q. You keep mentioning your road racing skills. Do you think why you were able to acquire such good skills, and talk about how other NASCAR drivers certainly try to borrow your skills by watching you?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Well, it’s a great question. Obviously you’ve got to go where your talents lie. My talents are really good on road racing in these big, heavy stockcars. It’s been the same my whole career. It’s a similar vehicle. It’s a heavy vehicle. It’s probably under-tired and over-engined. It suits my style, suits the way I like to drive a racecar. I get a lot of good feedback for the wheel.
I think it’s a natural skill set for me. I have the same effort every single week. It’s just my skill set is sort of matched to road racing.
It’s not to say that we can’t win anywhere. Certainly that’s the goal. That’s what we’re aiming for every single week.
But I had so much experience road racing before I came to America that I can steer the team in the direction I like and get the car right before these races start. That’s in the area where I’ve been not lacking but having trouble with, is giving the team clear enough direction when we go oval racing to get the car close before the race starts.
Q. As far as other NASCAR drivers trying to figure out what you do…
MARCOS AMBROSE: I tell you what, the talent level in the Sprint Cup garage on a road course is no joke. These guys know what they’re doing anyway. Certainly for me it’s the toughest road racing I’ve ever been a part of. Cars are really gnarly and the talent from the drivers is exceptional. There’s 20, 25 drivers that can win the race on the weekend. You saw the last couple years Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer, real surprise packages to go out and win the race there.
So really anyone can win these events. You just see the depth of talent when guys like that can shine and win a race out there.
That’s the biggest thing I try to explain to people when we’re talking about road racing in the Sprint Cup Series, is there’s nowhere to hide. These car are really tough. If you don’t have skill, you can’t get them around the track. The talent is so thick, if you have any issues at all, you’re going to have a really, really tough day.
Q. It’s been six weeks since there’s been a first-time winner in a Cup points race. As the regular season begins winding down, your perspective is different because you’re outside the top 20 in points, you need that win. Do you think winless teams in the 10th to 16th range are starting to look more at points as a way into the Chase and do you think this might impact strategy for a race like Sonoma this week?
MARCOS AMBROSE: I can’t talk for other teams and drivers about what they’re doing. Certainly if I was booked in the Chase, I would be feeling pretty good about the situation, I would be trying to test and prepare as best as I can to be ready for the Chase.
We’re outside the Chase on our team, the No. 9. Our focus is to win a race. Our mindset is really about full attack, especially when we go road racing. We’re not thinking about having a solid points day at Sonoma, we’re focused on winning it. I think anybody outside the top 16 will have the same approach.
As the season gets deeper and gets closer to the Chase, teams are going to become more and more desperate to win and they’re going to take bigger and bigger chances, and that’s certainly the case for us.
Q. If you’re 11th or 12th in the points without a win, you’re racing a team like that for the win, that team might be more inclined to play it conservative right now.
MARCOS AMBROSE: Yeah, potentially so. If I was 13th or 14th in points, hadn’t won a race, I’d be pretty nervous about that. I’d be trying to get up as far in the points score as I could to give yourself a buffer.
Let’s face it, if you can’t win a race before the Chase, it’s going to be hard for you to win the Chase anyway.
You’ve got to win, that’s what NASCAR is all about. The new points format and the way they’ve set it up this year, winning is everything. That’s really what we think about every single week.
We’re not racing for points right now, we’re racing for wins. That’s a big mindset change, or it has been in years past. If you were 16th or 17th in the points, you knew you had to keep ticking points over to give yourself a chance to make the top 12. Now you have to win races. Someone can jump over you if they’re 18th or 19th in points.
Q. You said last fall when you announced you were going to resign with RPM, this was going to be critical for you, but are you starting to work through that in your head about what’s next after this season in terms of NASCAR or elsewhere?
MARCOS AMBROSE: Yeah, certainly that’s right. I’m in a renewal year with Richard Petty for 2015. I’m not really thinking about myself here. I just want the best for RPM. They have decisions to make along the way here. I want to help them make their decisions and be where they want to be.
I haven’t really thought about anything much but that. I want to make sure that RPM are on the right path and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I help them do that.