From Down Under to the top

We all know Marcos Ambrose’s history in Australia. He is a championship driver from there.

What a great personality he has to go along with his incredible talent. He’s a fun guy to hang out with and has truly been a breath of fresh air in NASCAR. I love his enthusiasm and passion for racing. He has lots of fans here in the states and naturally a huge following back home in Australia.

We have all seen him rise up through the Nationwide Series ranks and secure a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup ride. Don’t forget that he won three consecutive Nationwide Series races at Watkins Glen. No one can forget the heartbreaking loss at Infineon Raceway last year when he was leading the race and while trying to conserve fuel the car stalled on him and he lost the race. It crushed him for awhile, but now obviously he has moved on.

We all know that certain drivers are specialists on some kind of tracks that are on our NASCAR schedule. My brother Michael, for instance, excels on restrictor-plate tracks. He’s won two Daytona 500’s and four races total in the Cup series, all on restrictor-plate tracks.

There are short-track specialists. There are guys that really do well on the 1.5-mile tracks. It is that way now and that’s the way it was back in the day, too. While I had a lot of wins on all types of tracks, I always considered myself a short-track specialist. I loved the short tracks. The beating and banging, the finesse and the feel of the car on the short tracks were a lot of fun.

Now for Marcos, his specialty is the road courses. Now both he and Juan Pablo Montoya, also a road-course ace, have won NASCAR Sprint Cup races on road courses. Both guys will also tell you how badly they want to win on an oval track to show everyone they are a more rounded driver and can win elsewhere than on road courses.

As a driver, my belief was that if you are great on a particular type of track, then you better dominate there. My first Cup win in 1975 was at Nashville. Heck that was my home track. If I couldn’t beat those guys there, then how could I ever expect to win everywhere else? I grew up on the short tracks. The little bullrings all over the Southeast are where I learned car control. It was that experience that helped contribute to me being fortunate enough to win at Bristol Motor Speedway 12 times and 11 times at Martinsville Speedway.

See that’s how I felt about Marcos. He’s awesome on the road courses, but how could he expect to win anywhere else until he won there. Yes, last year heartbreakingly one slipped through his fingers. Now however, he has closed the deal and beat the best in NASCAR on Monday on a road course.

With Marcos it wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. Now the other really cool thing is that he is now our fifth first-time winner in our premier series this year. We had seen flashes of brilliance from all five of those guys in years past, so now this year they broke through that barrier and have proudly joined the ranks of NASCAR Sprint Cup winners.

Marcos made the switch this year to Richard Petty Motorsports. You have to admire the risk he took because last year, as we all know, there was all the turmoil going on over there with the ownership situation and funding for the teams. So that was a big gamble on his part, but now it’s all paid off.

With Richard and his new investors fully in charge now, the great cars and power plants from Ford are all adding up to success over there. It always amazes me and this is yet another example of how much things can change in only a year in our sport.

Quite honestly, as well as Marcos’s teammate, AJ Allmendinger, has been running this year, it would not surprise me one bit to see him be another first-time winner this year. As dim as things looked toward the end of the season last year when they didn’t know from week to week whether they were even going to the races, to where they are today with Marcos in Victory Lane and AJ getting ever so much closer to joining him is amazing.

Two of the all-time great drivers that came into NASCAR were road-race specialists – Dan Gurney and Mark Donohue. Dan won something like five times at Riverside – which for you newer fans that was a road course. Mark, who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1972 also won at Riverside. Here’s the wild part though – it was in an AMC Matador of all things.

For all the talk we have in our sport of “road-course ringers” – which is team putting a road-course specialist behind the wheel at either Sonoma or Watkins Glen – Mark Donohue was the last “ringer” to win a Cup race and that was clear back in 1973. You can’t obviously consider Marcos a ringer because he has been racing full time in our sport for a number of years now. So for all the noise of road-course ringers coming in and stealing the Cup boys’ glory at those specific races, well you can simply forget that.

I am really happy for Marcos. He has been knocking on the door for some time now and Monday at Watkins Glen was his day. I am also happy for his crew chief Todd Parrott, son of one of my early crew chiefs, Buddy Parrott. Marcos and Todd have great chemistry and are enjoying a really great year. They’ve had seven top-10 finishes this year and now a win, so that shows you how strong they have been.

Now they have to focus on two things – getting another win and being in the top 20 in points. They do that and the odds are really good they would make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Think about that scenario for a second and then ask yourself who would they knock out of the Chase? They’ve got four more chances to get that second win and Marcos has run well at some of these upcoming tracks. Now sure it is a long shot, but I wouldn’t count them out just yet of possibly making the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase.

If you got a chance to watch the race, which got pushed to Monday due to the weather, or at least got to see the highlights, you saw some wild crashes. Denny Hamlin lost his brakes and had a nasty wreck. Kurt Busch and Paul Menard both lost tires.

The really scary one was there on the last lap with David Ragan and my good buddy David Reutimann. The poor guy crashed and flipped and bounced around. It was just a nasty, nasty wreck. It could have been catastrophic because, for whatever reason, there were no SAFER barriers in place.

NASCAR has a standard and they say we won’t race at a track without SAFER barriers. So that then raises the question of why the heck are we racing at Watkins Glen that doesn’t have them in place? Two weeks ago Brad Keselowski got hurt testing at Road Atlanta and it didn’t have SAFER barriers.

Someone has to take a hard look at Watkins Glen. The television doesn’t come anywhere close to conveying to the folks at home just how incredibly fast these 3400-pound stock cars go. It takes a wreck like the one David Ragan and David Reutimann had Monday for folks to fully grasp the speeds on this very narrow racetrack.

Thank goodness for all the safety improvements to the car and in the car. It was those elements that let those two men walk away Monday from their mangled cars. There is no excuse – none whatsoever – for a racetrack to have a sanctioned NASCAR event and not have SAFER barriers in place.

It’s an investment that Watkins Glen must make. We’ve learned it time and time again on other tracks that a race car will find the one spot you never expected it to hit that doesn’t have a SAFER barrier. Poor Jeff Gordon can tell you all about that from his crash a couple years ago.

I keep saying and I will continue to say – we can’t take safety for granted. It’s always a moving target that we constantly have to be vigil about. While I like some of the improvements they have done at Watkins Glen with the run-off areas, there is still work that needs to be done to that track. They simply have to get SAFER barriers in place there.

After the race we all got to witness the scuffle between Greg Biffle and Boris Said. Tempers boiled over from a previous issue between the two of them. That’s simply a product of NASCAR’s “boys have at it.” This was just another weekly racetrack flare up.

Feuds are something that last over time, but in today’s NASCAR we have flare ups. Whether it is Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman at Richmond, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch at Darlington, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch and now, as you saw Monday, Boris and Greg. These things flare up and then burn out rather quickly. It’s the heat of the moment stuff when drivers are all amped up and mad at each other. You saw Boris say he was going to Greg’s house and give him a black eye. Trust me, it won’t happen. Those two talked on the phone Tuesday and settled their differences.

Now what I don’t like is when folks covering the sport say these types of incidents are good for the sport. Drivers having feuds, flare ups, disagreements, shoving matches and taking a swing at each other has been going on in our sport since it started, but we can’t promote it as something our sport is all about.

These are passionate, emotional drivers. They have to vent. We are the only sport that lets a camera or microphone get shoved in the athlete’s face the second he or she gets out of that race car. They’re hot, tired and angry at someone and so they let their feelings be known. That’s what this sport has always had but our sport is about racing cars, not throwing punches and shoving matches.

Finally I want to again tip my hat to Brad Keselowski. That young man simply continues to impress me. He won at Pocono Raceway days after being hurt in a crash testing Road Atlanta. Monday, he brought his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge home in second place.

He is determined not to let his team down.

Two weeks ago at the start of the race at Pocono, not only was he injured from his testing crash, but outside the top 20 in points and, despite his one win, couldn’t be considered for one of the two wild-card spots in the 2011 Chase. Those spots go to drivers with wins in the 11th through 20th points position. Now this young man has two wins, has moved all the way up to 14th in the points, 58 points out of making the top 10, but is in the No. 1 wild-card slot.

That is very, very impressive. He and his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, have a great relationship and it is translating into success on the track. They’ve amassed two wins, a pole, four top-five and seven top-10 finishes so far this year. While it is a long shot to think they could make it up into the top 10 in points with only four races to go, they are still poised to be in their very first NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase through the wild-card spot.

I couldn’t be happier for them. What a great accomplishment for that young driver and team.