Circuit Gilles Villeneuve owed Marcos Ambrose a victory and finally paid up.
The Australian had led more laps than any other driver in the first four editions of Montreal’s NASCAR Nationwide event and he finally cashed in Saturday, taking the lead on a restart with nine laps to go and holding off crowd favorite Alex Tagliani to take the checkered flag in the NAPA Auto Parts 200.
Ambrose had started at the back because he missed the pre-race drivers meeting for the NASCAR Nationwide event. Then he survived a collision with 1997 Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve halfway through the race that knocked him back to 28th place.
”I kept my head down, stayed calm, ticked off some good laps and made some aggressive passes,” Ambrose said. ”It’s been a great day.
”I feel like I passed 400 cars out there. I finally got to the front when it counted. I’ve come close here. I’ve led more laps than anyone, but today I was able to close the deal.”
Ambrose’s first Nationwide win of the year and came on the heels of his first Sprint Cup victory, Monday at Watkins Glen.
Tagliani crossed 1.112 seconds back and Michael McDowell was third, Steve Wallace fourth and J.R. Fitzpatrick fifth. Danica Patrick finished 24th in her first NASCAR road race.
NASCAR announced after the race that the right rear spring on Ambrose’s car would be examined at its research and development center in Charlotte, NC, on Tuesday. A spokesman didn’t say what officials were looking for but said the victory would not be taken away regardless of what is found.
Canadians Tagliani and Villeneuve, teammates on the Penske team for the weekend, started from the front row but neither was able to hold back Ambrose’s Stanley Ford.
Villeneuve held the lead through the first three of six yellow flags in the 74-lap race, but with Ambrose just behind going into a chicane on the restart after the fourth caution, he locked his brakes, went wide across the grass infield and T-boned the Aussie when he came out the other side.
”I just saw Marcos on the inside and instead of driving aggressively and leaning on him, I gave him plenty of room, ended up on the gray and just lost it,” said Villeneuve, who placed 27th, two laps off the lead. ”After that the power steering was burst and we had to replace it.
Attendance figures weren’t announced, but with warm, sunny weather and Villeneuve and Tagliani on the front row, it appeared to be the biggest crowd since the inaugural Nationwide race here in 2008.
Grandstands were packed and thousands lined the sides of the track, most cheering wildly – for Villeneuve for half the race and then for Tagliani as he chased the lead.
There are concerns it may be the final race in Montreal after the Quebec government turned down a request for $500,000 in funding, but organizers are optimistic a deal will be made before NASCAR releases its 2012 schedule this month.
A fifth straight action-filled race should help their cause.
Tagliani, who races full time in IndyCar, traded the lead with veteran Ron Fellows through two restarts after the Villeneuve crash.
But after another on the 61st lap when defending champion Boris Said brushed a wall, Ambrose roared past and couldn’t be caught.
”We went with a setup that was easy on the tires, but no good for putting heat on them in restarts, so it penalized us on restarts,” said Tagliani, who said he was almost taken out in the Villeneuve-Ambrose collision.
Ambrose, Carl Edwards, and Trevor Bayne made it to the race about 25 minutes before the start from the Sprint Cup event in Michigan. They arrived on Edwards’ jet — a two-hour flight — helicoptered to the track and took a boat along the Olympic rowing basin beside the track to the garages.
”I started at 10 a.m. with Cup series practice,” Ambrose said. ”We jumped on a helicopter to jump on a plane to jump in another helicopter to jump in a boat to jump in a race car.
”It’s been an incredible day and I have to thank Carl for letting me piggyback on his plans.”
The trio flew back to Brooklyn, Mich, after the race for Sunday’s Sprint Cup event.
What is expected to be the final career race for Canada’s Patrick Carpentier ended when he was bumped off the track and out of the race by Wallace while challenging near the front with nine laps to go. He climbed onto some scaffolding at trackside and watched the race play out.
”I’m amazed a guy like Wallace has a full-time ride,” Carpentier said. ”It’s like sometimes he spaces out. I’ve never said this before, but I think the guy is an idiot. But what can you do?”
Wallace apologized for the incident in a postrace TV interview, but Carpentier said: ”He needs to apologize every race. His sponsor should be called My Apology.”