Marcos Ambrose entered Saturday’s Zippo 200 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Watkins Glen International the overwhelming favorite, and throughout the 82-lap event proved why that was the case.
Starting fourth, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver wasted no time getting aggressive and working his way to the front. While the Team Penske teammates of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano showed the way in the opening laps, Ambrose took the lead for the first time on Lap 10.
The race to the finish was not easy for Ambrose, however, as he was forced to work his way through slower traffic and hold off a hard-charging Kyle Busch. With five laps to go, Ambrose wrinkled the left front of his No. 09 car’s nose after getting into the back of Roger Reuse while Busch closed the gap behind him.
While Busch was able to close the gap, he had nothing for Ambrose as the Australian native scored his fourth consecutive Nationwide Series victory at Watkins Glen International and became the all-time Nationwide Series winner on the road courses.
"This is a one race a year deal right here," Ambrose said in Victory Lane. "We do one Nationwide race a year and just so thrilled for the guys. We’ve got a part-time crew chief, part-time car chief, we just threw this car together and here we are in Victory Lane."
Leading 48 of the 82 laps, Ambrose may have made it look easy, but the Sprint Cup regular had to work for his fourth-straight win.
"I had my tongue hanging out all day," he said. "I had nothing left. I had to make up all the ground from the spin and Joey was super fast in the middle and I had to hold him back. Kyle really pressed at the end and came alive. Another lap and I would have been in real trouble."
For Busch, it was his second-straight runner-up finish in the Nationwide Series, as he finished second to Brad Keselowski in Loudon.
"Another second-place," Busch said. "The Monster Energy Camry was good, probably good enough, but never had track position."
The hard-hitting action at the front of the field started right from the drop of the green flag.
On Lap 5, Busch made a move on the inside of Ambrose for the third spot as they entered the bus stop. Unable to complete the pass, Busch’s No. 54 Toyota made contact with Ambrose’s No. 09 Ford, sending them both spinning. Busch rejoined the field in 15th, while Ambrose dropped back to 12th.
VIDEO: Kyle Busch and Marcos Ambrose spin on Lap 5 at Watkins Glen
Mired mid-pack, both Ambrose and Busch went to work driving their way through the field and back to the front.
"No harm, no foul," Ambrose said of the early incident. "The spotter said he was sticking his nose in and I kind of half closed the door and made contact. I knew it wasn’t over, that’s for sure."
Frustrated with the early contact from Ambrose, Busch was forced to work his way back early in the race, as well as overcome late contact with Keselowski while battling for third.
"Tried to make a move on somebody that don’t give a crap, then he just turned into me and we spun out," Busch said. "That put us behind, but we came back and got second."
While Ambrose and Busch raced for the win, Logano did everything he could to hold off Keselowski on the final lap as the Team Penske cars battled hard.
Holding off his teammate, Logano was pleased with third, but was left wanting more.
"I wasn’t very good on the long run there and I can hang with Marcos for awhile and was actually faster than him," Logano said. "If I could have gotten clean air I thought I could drive away but by the end of the race he was just faster than me. I started losing the tires through the carousel and he started pulling me a little there. I started abusing the rear tires to try to get my balance back and then I didn’t have a rear tire or front tire and was just hanging on the last few laps. This 12 team doesn’t race many races but they put together a great Snap-On Ford for me today. We were close, a caution or something would have been more fun for me."
When Landon Cassill cut a tire and brought out the fifth caution of the day, it set up a restart with 20 laps to go. Ambrose continued to get the jump on the field, while Keselowski and Busch continued their door-to-door battle. Racing hard for the third spot, Keselowski drove too hard into the inner loop and shot through the grass.
The incident dropped him back to sixth, but he was able to quickly work his way back to fourth and chase down the leaders, but could only manage a fourth-place finish.
"We just came up a little short," Keselowski said. "I thought we had really good speed and made some runs at it but not enough to clear on the passes that I needed. Whoever got up front looked like they were going to use the clean air to run away and Marcos did a great job with that and we just came up a bit short."
Matt Kenseth, Chase Elliott, Ty Dillon, Paul Menard, and Brian Scott rounded out the top 10.
The first caution of the day came on Lap 11 when Trevor Bayne got into Kenny Habul entering the inner loop. After spinning around, Habul’s car shed its flat tire and sent debris all over the track.
Ambrose and Busch took advantage of the first caution of the day, hitting pit road for tires and to check for repairs. While most the leaders stayed out, Ambrose restarted in the 16th spot, while Busch took the green flag on Lap 16 in the 18th spot. Within half a lap, both drivers were back inside the top 10 and moving forward.
As green flag stops were cycling through, Bayne helped bring out the second caution of the day after getting into the lapped car of Kevin O’Connell in the inner loop. When the three cars out front hit pit road to complete the round of stops, Ambrose went back to the point, followed by Busch, Logano and Keselowski.
While Ambrose and Logano battled at the front of the field, Trevor Bayne struck again on Lap 34 when he made contact with JJ Yeley entering Turn 6. The contact sent Yeley hard into the outside guardrail, bringing out the third caution of the day.
Just past the midway point of the race, Ambrose led Logano as green flag stops kicked off at Lap 49. Ambrose was the first of the leaders to pit for tires and fuel, and as Logano exited pit road the following lap, the pair raced hard for position through the Esses, rubbing fenders as Ambrose grabbed the advantage.
After the race, Logano called Ambrose’s aggressive move to take the lead the "key moment" of the race.
"If I was able to get in front of him there — all I needed was three-tenths of a second probably and that would have been enough position into that corner to beat him through the esses and get position," Logano said. "I felt like if I got clean air and ran hard that I could have gapped him. I think at the end of the race, he would have caught me and the 54 also. It would have been close. I am not going to say we would have won the race. It would have been close."
Under the same round of green flag stops, championship contender Regan Smith was forced to come back to pit road after the team failed to secure all the lug nuts on the right front tire. Running sixth before the stop, Smith slowed after his initial stop and was hit from behind by Chris Buescher. After returning to the pits to secure his right front tire, Smith rejoined the race 28th, one lap down to the leaders.
Smith would rally to finish 17th, but trails Chase Elliott — who finished sixth — by 12 points in the championship battle.
"Just frustrated with the whole day," Smith said. "We had a fast race car on the race track. Through practice the Clean Coal team did everything they needed to do and it was going smooth. We just didn’t need pit stops. Unfortunately, you have to come in and get tires and fuel at some point in a race, and that’s two weeks in a row that’s hurt us. So we’ll have to work hard on those and whatever we’ve got to do to fix those we need to do it, because we’re not going to win the championship that way."
Saturday’s race featured 15 lead changes among 11 different drivers and was slowed five times for a total of 14 laps of caution. The NASCAR Nationwide Series heads to Mid Ohio next week for the second road course race in a row.