Watkins Glen International turned into a 2.45-mile slip-and-slide Sunday as NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers attempted to avoid oil and rain.
But Marcos Ambrose used his stellar road-course skills — and a little luck — in an effort to find a dry line with maximum grip on a track that was less than satisfactory after the No. 47 Toyota coated the surface with oil.
And when the track wasn’t sufficient, Ambrose moved to the grass — and everywhere in between — to hold off Brad Keselowski at the finish.
“It was absolute chaos at the end,” Ambrose said.
While Ambrose said he was “the first one to slip in the oil,” Kyle Busch slid sideways entering the first turn on the last lap. After contact with Busch, Keselowski took the lead with Ambrose directly behind him.
The contest became not which driver had the dominant car but which could avoid the oil.
“You couldn’t see where the oil was at,” Ambrose said. “If it was a black streak, it would be OK. It was almost like a fine spray. . . . Didn’t know what was really going on. Not until I saw Brad and Kyle sliding as well. I thought, ‘OK, there’s something on the track and we’re going to have to deal with it.’ ”
Keselowski and Ambrose slid through oil and traded the lead several times coming to the finish with Ambrose’s No. 9 Stanley Ford besting Keselowski’s No. 2 Miller Dodge by 0.571 of a second at the end.
“You just take your chances,” Ambrose said. “You’ve got to commit at that point in the race.”
Ambrose stayed the course. The victory in the Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen offered the driver of the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford his second consecutive win at the track and elevated his team to fifth in the wild-card standings.
For Busch, who finished seventh after leading a race-high 43 laps, nothing short of a win at the Glen would have improved his chances of earning a wild-card spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. While Busch moved up to 14th place in the points standings and third in the wild-card rankings, that’s hardly a consolation for a driver who entered the weekend expecting to win — and certainly had a serious shot to do so.
He declined comment after the race.
With four races remaining before the Chase field is decided, Ambrose will need another win to be a serious contender among the wild cards. Since the new ownership group took over at Richard Petty Motorsports before the 2011 season, an RPM team has yet to qualify for the Chase.
Ambrose believes RPM’s best opportunity for a second win is next week at Michigan, where the team won the pole in June.
“We were running in the top five all day there,” Ambrose said, recalling his ninth-place performance at the 2-mile-long track. “No reason we can’t go there and surprise them again.”
The win at Watkins Glen comes at an opportune time for Ambrose and RPM. In the first 21 races of the season, neither Ambrose nor teammate Aric Almirola had scored a top-five finish before Sunday. And RPM was being courted by Dodge before the manufacturer elected last week to pull out of NASCAR at the end of the year. Now RPM must renegotiate its deal with Ford Motor Co.
“I have raced in those conditions before, but not when there’s so much at stake,” Ambrose said. “We’re racing NASCAR Sprint Cup Series here. Wins are hard to come by. Just a lot of pressure and you’re up against the best drivers in the world.”
A new sensation
Yes, Brad Keselowski was a bridesmaid once again at the Glen.
However, it wasn’t until last season that he was even considered a contender on road courses. That’s when he scored his first top-10, at Sonoma. Two month later, he followed that performance with a second place at Watkins Glen.
“We were very, very close,” Keselowski said. “Trying to keep in perspective how far we’ve come as a team. To run this competitively on road courses is something I’m very proud of.”
Not only was 2011 Keselowski’s breakthrough season on road courses, it was the year he established himself as an elite Sprint Cup driver and a perennial winner.
Keselowski has matched his career-best record with three victories this season, and his second-place finish Sunday elevated him to fifth in the points standings — the same position he finished in last year.
“Brad has proven that he can run a great race on road courses,” crew chief Paul Wolfe said. “Today was no different. I think that we’ve shown over the last few weeks that we’ve put ourselves in position to win, and that’s what we are here to do, win races. It was tough not to get a win, but it was a heck of a finish.”
And with his versatility on all tracks — including road courses — Keselowski is putting himself in position to also be considered a true champion contender.
2: Consecutive wins for Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen and his average finish at the track.
2: Consecutive top-10 finishes for Regan Smith — both earned since crew chief Todd Berrier took over the team at Indy.
3: Career top-five finishes for Sam Hornish Jr. after finishing fifth on Sunday — his first top-five since Michigan in 2009.
Jeff Gordon, who dropped from 12th to 21st after he spun on the last lap:
“I guess someone was laying oil and NASCAR doesn’t want (races) to end under caution. They talked about it the whole lap but never want to throw a caution. So you’re racing as hard as you can for every position. . . . We started good, got off and fell back and we were coming big time at the end. I was passing a lot of cars, racing (Matt Kenseth). . . .
"I had no idea there was oil there, on the outside of the last turn. So (Kenseth) gave me the outside, I think he might have seen the oil. I went to the outside and hit it and spun right out. I’m just really disappointed because we fought hard today to come back to get what was going to be a pretty nice finish. . . .
"It’s just unfortunate that that gets taken away from you because NASCAR doesn’t want to end the race under yellow. I understand you want to keep it entertaining and give the winner a shot at it. But there’s a lot of other things going on out there, too. I think they completely disregarded that, and, hey, it’s over now. We’ll move on.”