So after coming home in 27th place at Homestead Miami Speedway, Marcos Ambrose quietly slunk off into the night as the fireworks exploded into the sky. Whilst his exit barely raised a mention amongst the lengthy Championship decider missives, his arrival back in Australia is already generating a huge buzz, and today his wildcard #66 Ford Falcon entry for the Sydney 500 was unveiled to great media anticipation. Perhaps the biggest adjustment Ambrose will have to make is not between cars, or driving styles, but getting used to being a local hero once again.
And now seems like a perfect time to look back over his stint in NASCAR. One which never saw him scale the heights, but one in which he held his own, added some genuine international star power to the series, and arguably set a new standard for road course racing in NASCAR.
On its own, moving from a settled base in your homeland and a successful ride in a world-renowned series to a nation thousands of miles away and a totally new discipline of racing is quite the ballsy move. That Ambrose moved to the US as a multiple V8 Supercar champion makes it even more jaw-dropping. The fact that not even Jamie Whincup, the driver that many would consider the GOAT in V8s, would consider doing this shows how brave Ambrose really was to up sticks, move himself and his family to America, and jump into NASCAR racing.
Starting in 2006, his debut season was a tilt in the Craftsman Truck Series, before a move up to the Nationwide Series in 2007, eventually taking a very credible 8th in points and 2nd in the Rookie of the Year battle – beaten only by one David Ragan. 2008 saw three breakthroughs: a first NASCAR victory, a first Sprint Cup start, then a first NASCAR Sprint Cup top-5. The first and third of those was on the same weekend – just 24 hours after clinching victory in the Zippo 200 at Watkins Glen, Ambrose drove from dead last on the grid to a scarcely believable 3rd place, only beaten by heavyweights Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart in his first Cup start at the Glen. This was only a glimpse at what was to come…
His first two full seasons of Cup racing yielded a total of 12 top-10 finishes, including another 2nd and 3rd at the Glen – clearly his favourite stop in Cup, as well as in Nationwide where he took his winning streak out to three. Disaster in the 2010 Toyota/Save Mart 350, where a fuel-saving gaffe took him from the lead to 7th with just six laps to go, denied him a debut Cup win, but surely it was only a matter of time now?
Finally in 2011, the breakthrough. A switch to Richard Petty Motorsports boosted Ambrose, and in a season of a record-high 12 top-10s came the most significant one – a first ever Cup series victory as he muscled past Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch in a scarcely believable finale at – where else? – the Glen. A week later and his Montreal hoodoo was finally lifted in Nationwide Series.Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
2012 brought another 8 top-10s and a Groundhog Day-esque Glen race, where once again he won after once again going toe-to-toe with Keselowski and Busch. And though after 2012 he would not win again in Cup series racing, he still had time to nab one more Glen Nationwide Series win in 2014, as well as be involved in perhaps the finest Cup race of 2014 where he and AJ Allmendinger went head to head in an extraordinary battle of wills and guts eventually won by Allmendinger – the irony being that it was the same #47 car which had started Ambrose’s own Cup career, driven by an ex-teammate.
It is incredibly easy to dismiss Ambrose as just ‘that guy who was half decent on a road course and average anywhere else.’ And whilst partially true, that’s not to say his oval racing stats were bad – far from it. He was able to notch good runs at most tracks, with short tracks being a strong point – his career best oval finish was 3rd twice at Bristol (2009) and Dover (2011), and he netted top-10s on multiple occasions at Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond and Charlotte. One could argue that RPM were far from the strongest team in the sport overall, so put in that context such finishes are more impressive – even more so considering his lack of oval experience compared to his peers.
But his road course prowess is arguably where he will be remembered most. And there’s a damn good reason for that. An incredible tally of 5 finishes of 3rd or better in 6 starts at the Glen, including 2 wins, is all the proof you need – particularly when allied to 6 top-10s in 6 Sonoma starts. Couple that with 5 Nationwide road course successes (4 at the Glen and 1 at Montreal) and you quickly realise why most drivers and fans are quick to note Ambrose as the new benchmark for road racing in NASCAR. He became the man to beat at Watkins Glen, and it was high praise for Ambrose that a large part of Allmendinger’s elation at his victory this year wasn’t just that he won the thing – it’s that he beat Ambrose to do it. There is no higher compliment from a fellow competitor than that.
No, Ambrose never dominated, or even made the Chase – and the fact his teammate Aric Almirola made it in this year ahead of him seems a cruel irony. But Ambrose departs back to Australia with reputation enhanced and most crucially, respect earnt. You can’t fake out NASCAR fans or drivers, so when they proclaim you to be the finest road course racer they’ve ever seen in NASCAR, you know they damn well mean it.
Seeya later, Marcos. Watkins Glen won’t really be the same without you.