It was no surprise Marcos Ambrose topped the speed chart in Saturday’s Sprint Cup qualifying.
Considering Ambrose has mastered this track after posting wins in the last two Cup races at The Glen, and boasts the series’ best average finish of second in five starts on 2.45-mile circuit, there’s very little room for improvement.
But on Friday, the pressure got to the racer in preparation for Sunday’s Cheez-It 355.
“I actually lost my cool yesterday afternoon, and we made some changes because I just didn’t quite feel like we were good enough,” Ambrose said Saturday. “The boys did a good job of listening to my rants and managed to calm me back down for today.
“I was a little worried about our qualifying form, so we’ve got that out of the way and we can really focus now.”
Ambrose responded with his first pole at the Glen and a record-setting lap of 128.241 mph — one full mph faster than the mark set by Juan Pablo Montoya (127.020 mph) just last year. Ambrose was one of 10 drivers to break the existing record. The accomplishment comes during a season in which the driver of the No. 9 Stanley Ford is 22nd in points and has just three top-10 finishes and 19 laps at the point.
“It’s a very special moment for me,” Ambrose said. “I’ve never had a pole position here, so I dug deep and put down a solid lap, and it was enough.”
Although Ambrose has been stellar at Watkins Glen in the past, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver believes his Generation 6 Fusion “really suits this race track.” The 37-year-old Aussie said he felt more comfortable on the track, which led him to be more aggressive in attacking it.
“This new Gen-6 race car is a lot faster for us, especially on road races,” said Ambrose, who collected his third career Cup pole Saturday. “It’s got more downforce, it’s lighter, and those two factors really help a lot — the center of gravity is lower — so all of those are good things for a race car to go fast.
“I’m looking forward to the race and feel like we have as good a chance as anybody to win and go three in a row.”
Ambrose has a chance to join Mark Martin (1993-95) and Jeff Gordon (1997-1999) as the only drivers with three straight victories at The Glen.
“Those two names are awesome names in NASCAR competition, and it would be fantastic, but we haven’t won the race yet, so there’s no point in even thinking about it,” Ambrose said.
“I’ve just got to go out there and do the best job that I can and the team can put their best foot forward as well and see if it goes our way.
“I hate putting that kind of pressure (on myself), and I hate thinking about that kind of stuff. … I’m just gonna go out there tomorrow and enjoy the race, enjoy the opportunity that it is. It’s an opportunity to win for Stanley and DeWalt and Ford and Richard Petty — get him back in Victory Lane. Those are good days if you can do that, so I’m just gonna enjoy it for what it is. It’s a chance for us to win and a chance to enjoy what NASCAR is all about in road racing. I like road racing. I tend to like it more and more when I can run this well. We’re just gonna have fun tomorrow and enjoy it.”
BACK ON TRACK
A year ago, A.J. Allmendinger missed Watkins Glen because he was serving a suspension for failing a drug test two months earlier. So when he returned to The Glen this weekend, after testing here with the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Racing crew the month before, he was ready to attack the track.
Allmendinger was seventh in first practice but not pleased with running 18th in Happy Hour. By qualifying on Saturday, he had his mojo back. He went out with the penultimate group in time trials and posted the fourth-fastest lap, 127.433 mph.
“The car was really good, and we just had some little things off yesterday,” Allmendinger said. “So the guys worked really hard and kind of got it back to where it felt normal. I still think we need to improve it a little bit, but for this small, one-car team everybody works so hard. Brian Burns is the crew chief, and just everybody on this whole 47 race team — it’s a fun group to be a part of. I think if we hit it right tomorrow [Sunday], we have a shot at this thing."
Although Allmendinger has yet to win a Sprint Cup race, his first NASCAR victory came on a road course in June, driving at Road America for Roger Penske. He led 29 of 55 laps on the way to his first win. Allmendinger will reprise his role with Penske Racing at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course next weekend as the Nationwide Series makes its debut at the 2.709-mile track.
After Mid-Ohio, Allmendinger has just three Cup races scheduled for the remainder of the year — Atlanta, Richmond and Homestead. So Allmendinger understands he has to make his opportunities count.
With “10 to 15 legit” drivers able to contend on Sunday — including his former Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Ambrose — Allmendinger knows the competition will be tight. He believes the key to improving on his average Glen finish of ninth is “to do everything right.”
“These races are so hard to win,” Allmendinger said. “The pit crew just in the few weeks I’ve spent with them in the couple of races I’ve done, they’ve worked really hard and they’re a really good group of guys. Ultimately, we just got to keep the tires on the race car. I’ve been fighting tight since I’ve got here, and that’s something that’s been struggling.
“We did a lot of long runs at the test. I feel good about the platform of the race car. We’ve just got to keep fine-tuning. But, like I said, if we do the right things, we’ll be somebody to be reckoned with."
FOR A GOOD CAUSE
More than $94,000 was raised for the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation to aid pediatric cancer research through two fundraisers in Knoxville, Iowa, this week.
Weld Racing’s Tony Stewart Spectacular Kart Race, the brainchild of the three-time Cup champ, was held Wednesday. Seventy fans donated at least $200 to race against Stewart and Gordon. Stewart was unable to participate after breaking his leg Monday night at Southern Iowa Speedway. After seven heat races, his replacement, Kyle Larson, won the feature.
On Friday, organizers held a kickball tourney featuring drivers, wives, girlfriends and fans as part of the event.
“Tony has been a great supporter of the kickball tournaments, and obviously with his involvement with sprint car racing and that whole community has been so supportive,” Gordon said. “We always said this was a grassroots program — what better way to get it going and have some fun than a grassroots racing program and dirt tracks racers and the fans and the competitors?
"Tony is a giving guy and has a big heart. … He obviously really was a big influence on the whole thing coming together with sponsors and getting fans out there.
“Hopefully it’s something we can build on and do more of, and obviously we would love to have Tony back at it again next year. It was tough because he wasn’t there, but we also understand how big of an impact he played in that event happening and being a part of it. I was excited about it, especially racing with him, and we made the best out of it that we could.”
Duty called for Nationwide driver Justin Allgaier, who had mixed emotions about leaving his wife, Ashley, and newborn daughter at home in North Carolina.
He tweeted: "Wheels up to @WGI. Maybe one of the hardest trips I’ve ever had to leave for :(. Although returning with a black and white flag might help."
3 — points that separate leader Austin Dillon from second-place Sam Hornish Jr. in the Nationwide Series.
4 — consecutive Nationwide Series wins for Brad Keselowski. Saturday’s victory at The Glen was his 24th career NNS win, and the eighth for Penske Racing in 2013.
12 — track qualifying records set in the first 21 Sprint Cup races of 2013 with the new Generation 6 car.
After posting the sixth-fastest lap in Happy Hour on Friday, Jimmie Johnson was surprised he qualified 18th for Sunday’s Cheez-It 355. Johnson held a series-best qualifying average of 6.2 entering this weekend.
“It didn’t go as planned,” he said. “It was a lot harder to get around the track than I expected from what we had yesterday [Friday].”
Still, Johnson led the Hendrick Motorsports charge, followed by Kasey Kahne (19th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (25th) and five-time Glen winner Gordon (28th).