Marcos Ambrose looking for Sprint Cup breakthrough at Kentucky
Marcos Ambrose's best chance at making Chase will be to snag wild-card berth
A Matt Kenseth move to Joe Gibbs could be trouble for Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman
With a strong Atlanta record, look for Jimmie Johnson to win Kentucky Saturday
This is what Marcos Ambrose was expecting. This is how he thought he'd be running in this, his second season with Richard Petty Motorsports.
The Australian has captured the last two poles, including at Michigan, where he became the first driver to surpass 200 mph in a qualifying lap in 25 years at 203.241 mph. He has also finished in the top 10 in four of the last six races, including two straight.
But is it too much, too late to save his 2012 season?
"I just feel like we should have been running this well at the start of the year," Ambrose said. "The number one thing for me right now is that we're running as good as I expected. I'm happy with how we're running right now, but I feel like we left a lot of points out there in the first bit of the season."
At 16th in the driver standings with only 10 races remaining before the regular season concludes in Richmond, Ambrose's best hope is seizing a wild-card Chase berth, and that's likely going to take multiple wins -- which made what transpired at last weekend's race at Sonoma so frustrating.
The road-course ace was on the pole and had he won, would have entered the Aug. 12 trip to Watkins Glen -- the site of his only Cup triumph -- another road-course win away from being a legit playoff contender. But the team missed the setup entirely on the No. 9 Ford and Ambrose settled for eighth, his worst finish on a road course since he was 42nd in his Cup debut at Sonoma in 2008.
"We really wanted to try to win Sonoma," Ambrose said. "We thought we had a good chance to do it and we left one there. But if we can continue our form that we have been showing the last month or two, there is no reason we couldn't win a race or two or three and then all of a sudden it's game on for the Chase."
Ambrose has an average finish of 20th or worse on seven of the final regular-season stops, but four of those tracks (Kentucky, Loudon, Michigan and Atlanta) also fit into what's becoming a stronger part of his game: the 1-2-mile circuits. Over his first three seasons, he averaged a 23.0 with just one top-10 in 40 starts on those tracks, but in '11 and '12 he's produced 11 top 10s and a 15.4 average in 25 starts.
He'll try to continue that progress Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway. Ambrose finished 20th in the track's inaugural Cup race last season, but ran as high as sixth. He thinks his recent success at similar tracks like Michigan, where he finished ninth two weeks ago, and Charlotte, where he started second and led 20 laps before winding up 32nd, could make him a factor.
"We feel really good about Kentucky," Ambrose said. "It's going to be a good test for us, to see if the good things we had going on at Michigan and Charlotte cross over to another 1½ mile race track."
Ambrose believes he's close. The two-time V8 Supercar champion in Australia sees himself on the verge of breaking into the upper echelon of NASCAR's premier series.
"That's why I'm in the U.S. and that's why in NASCAR, because I believe I can be," Ambrose said. "I believe we're knocking on the door and there is no reason why we can't, and our team has been good enough, strong enough to get that done."
Taking that next step may be the hardest. He's shown progress, but has yet to turn into a consistent threat to reach Victory Lane and hasn't finished a season higher than 18th in the standings, which he did in '08. But '12 could go down as his breakthrough year. Only nine drivers have compiled more points than Ambrose's 186 over the last six races and he's never been higher in the standings at this point in the season.
"We have not given up," he said. "We still feel very optimistic and confident. We've gained points every week and we want to keep that trend going."
The announcement was simply stunning: Matt Kenneth is out and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is in Roush Fenway Racing's No. 17 Ford beginning next season. The former Cup champion, who has missed the Chase just once, says he already has a job lined up for '13, and all signs point to Joe Gibbs Racing, which is potentially bad news for two, if not three, drivers in contract years.
Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman are free-agents-to-be and a move to JGR was seen as a possibility for either. But the deal that could have belonged to one of them (depending on how Gibbs handles its own free-agent situation) looks to be going to Kenseth.
Then there's Joey Logano, himself in a contract year. If Kenseth does join JGR, would that organization 1) add a fourth car? 2) Move Logano to the Nationwide Series and give Kenseth the Home Depot-backed No. 20? 3) Let Logano walk? 4) Let Logano walk and move to four cars with another of the free agents? Logano has shown signs of reaching his potential, but adding a fourth team and having a lineup of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kenseth and either Kurt Busch or Newman could be too enticing for JGR to pass up.
Ah, the possibilities. Don't you just love the Silly Season?
This much is certain: A Kenseth move to Joe Gibbs Racing is sure to limit the negotiating power of the drivers we thought would be this year's top free agents, and shouldn't give Logano much job security until he has a Cup deal with JGR in hand.
Jimmie Johnson. The sample size is small for Kentucky Speedway. Last year's Cup race, won by Kyle Busch, was the track's first. And as good as enticing a pick as Joey Logano is with three career wins, those all came in Nationwide.
For now, the best way to forecast Kentucky may be by focusing on drivers' production on its sister track, Atlanta Motor Speedway, a place where Johnson has the series' best average finish and three victories (he was also strong a year ago at Kentucky, finishing third).
Look for Johnson, the hottest driver in Cup (two wins and five top fives in the last six races) to continue that trend at Kentucky, where hopefully the on-track action draws more headlines than the traffic outside it this time around.