Monday, August 31, 2009

Shocked into silence

To quote Anthony Hudson, AFL commentator, "I see it, but I do not believe it!"

I reckon every driver must have that nightmare; to have thoroughly dominated a race, only to have to taken away in the blink of an eye. It happened to Denny Hamlin at Richmond last year, it happened to Felipe Massa at Hungary last year, it happened to Juan Montoya at Indy a few weeks's a never-ending list for sure.

But I'm not as sure if it's happened to one driver at one track for three straight years...until yesterday at any rate.

It's safe to say that Montreal and Marcos Ambrose have a somewhat love-hate relationship as the track appears to fit Ambrose's driving style like a glove. When the, then Busch series, came to play in F1's sandbox in 2007, it was the rookie who looked set to take the win. When the, now Nationwide series, made history by racing in the rain for the first time, it was the sophomore who looked set to take the win. And just when it looked like Marcos would finally get redemption, we saw that lightning doesn't just strike twice, it does it three times.

It started so well with Marcos scoring his second career Nationwide pole.

I don't think anyone can say that Carl Edwards didn't deserve to win yesterday. For sure, he was close enough to make Marcos protect the inside line and that could only happen if he was close enough to make him do that in the first place (ahh, good old circular reasoning...have to love it at times *laugh*). However, I also don't think that anyone would say Marcos Ambrose deserved to not win yesterday.

He was sublime in the wet qualifying session on Saturday, being over a second faster than Carl who started alongside him for this race. He was equally good on every single restart, whether he was the guy who had to pick when to nail the throttle pedal or when he was making his way up the field after pitstops. And he was incredible to watch during the green flag laps, regardless if they were dry or wet, often leaping out to a lead that very few were able to reel back in.

I must say that seeing Carl closing on Ambrose in the final two laps, I was concerned. As good as Marcos is on any road course, he seems to be slower than most drivers at the apex of turns when you have to brake heavily. Once beyond that point though, there are very few areas where anyone can touch him...but, as any driver can attest to, it only takes a tiny slip on corner exit to lose momentum down a straight, and Marcos did appear to lose out a liitle most of the day off the hairpin. Not that it mattered as he had built up a comfortable enough lead through the rest of the lap to keep everyone behind him.

Until lap 76 anyway.

I don't confess to being a race technician so I don't know exactly how much work the #47 team did in comparison to the #60 team when changing over to a wet setup, but I do know that the more a car is changed for the rain, the worse it is to drive when it isn't raining. So maybe Carl had the benefit of a slightly better car in the conditions we had at race's end? Whatever the case, he managed to force Ambrose to make his one and only mistake all day and, yet again, a win at Montreal slipped through those Tasmanian fingers.

Unfortunately for Ambrose, this wasn't the order they finished in.

Marcos summed it up like this: “I'm jinxed around this joint, I'll tell you now. I mean, we had 15,000 restarts and got away with them all. I feel pretty devastated because I’ve let my boys down and we came here to win and anything less than that was a disappointment.”

While that could be considered a little harsh given the clinic he put on all race, you can't argue the devastation he was feeling. But isn't that why we watch the theatre that is motorsport, to see how the story plays out? Sometimes the guy with the best car wins, other times he doesn't.

That is a part of always has been and it always will be.

So, kudos to Carl Edwards for doing what so many must have thought was the impossible yesterday; snatching victory from the jaws of defeat...he better have bought Marcos a Molson last night. Although, given how stunned and numb I was, maybe the Aussie wouldn't have felt it anyway.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Was this the turning point?

Every driver has one; a race that can be pin-pointed as being the one that moved them from pretender to contender.

The last few months have seen some interesting things written about Marcos Ambrose; the two most intriguing, to me anyway, was the debate on whether Ambrose or David Ragan will be next in line to score their first Cup win and the other being a poll taken yesterday during the race on yahoo if Tony Stewart or Marcos was the surprise of the year.

Let's address the first article; will it be the man everyone was raving over at the last third of the 2008 season or will it be the tough-as-nails Aussie who, even when he has a bad day, says how lucky he is to be in NASCAR?

On paper prior to the Daytona 500, it was a no-brainer; Ragan was with the top Ford team while Ambrose was driving for a brand new team that had raced in less Cup races than I have fingers. Indeed, I predicted David to make the Chase while Marcos would be lucky to end up in the top 25...I couldn't have been more wrong if I tried now, could I? *laugh*

Ok, hands up if you had Marcos in with a shot for the Chase this year?

For whatever reason, the #6 UPS Ford Fusion has been struggling for the majority of 2009 while the #47 Little Debbie Toyota Camry has been flying high. It wasn't much of a surprise to anyone that Ambrose would challenge on the road courses of Infineon and Watkins Glen, but the way he has taken to the ovals has raised more than a few eyebrows and dropped even more jaws. He arrived at Bristol in March and, using strategy to get to the front, somehow came away with a top ten even though he drove the last 100 odd laps on six cylinders. He backed that up with great drives at Martinsville, Talladega, Richmond, Daytona and Pocono (ignoring the road courses) before arriving back at Bristol last night.

And boy, did he put on a show.

Starting mid pack, he steadily made his way towards the front, content with following in Jimmie Johnson's wake. Ambrose's charge didn't halt when he got to the top ten either as he brushed aside Chase contenders Juan Montoya, Greg Biffle and David Reutimann, then had the audacity to come on the radio and say "Jimmie who?" when Johnson let him through - yes, the three-time Champ let this rookie go, that's how good the #47 was at that stage of the race - and just to add a cherry on top of his cake, passed Kyle Busch around the outside for third...all before we reached half distance. Over a long run, I doubt there was a car quicker than his, even Mark Martin would have had trouble keeping pace with Ambrose.

Marcos proved that the March race was no fluke.

Unlike in March, Ambrose kept all eight cylinders to the end and, in his best race of his NASCAR career so far, he wound up a career-oval-best third and his stock rose some more notches. While his 2010 semi-teammate, Martin Truex Jr, had a strong run going until blowing a tyre, he must have been grinning from ear-to-ear inside his helmet with the way all the MWR cars were running. This has been a breakthrough year for MWR with Reutimann getting their first win and still a mathematical chance of making the Chase but it's been Ambrose who has been the star in my mind.

Oh yeah, I nearly forgot about the poll. The end result went in Tony's favour as I expected...but only just; 52% plays 48%.

I think it's easily safe to say that Marcos Ambrose has arrived. He's no longer a road-ringer, but a fully-fledged NASCAR driver and I do believe he'll get that first win before David Ragan does. If he can escape the pesky 'sophomore slump' that has struck a few drivers in the past, he could very well find himself in the Chase for 2010...complete with bonus points for winning a race or two.

And if that is the case, it can be traced back to that one hot August night in Bristol; the race Marcos Ambrose cemented his place in the Cup series.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

TNQC & TNRC - Michigan

Righto, I haven't updated this since Mr Keselowski shocked us all by winning at 'dega...not fun adding all these up let me tell you *laugh*

A quick recap of the way this works;
- points are awarded as per an old V8 Supercar points system that only went down to 17th place.
- races less than 400 miles in length or do not achieve 75% of the scheduled distance get half points.
- washouts in qualifying do not count.

I'll just list the top 20 of each one as there are 51 drivers who have scored points in the QC while 43 have done so in the RC.

Tez's NASCAR Qualifying Championship - after round 23:

1 – Brian Vickers, 601 points (6 poles)
2 – Jimmie Johnson, 594 points (1 pole)
3 – Mark Martin, 582 points (4 poles)
4 – Kyle Busch, 558 points (1 pole)
5 – Jeff Gordon, 444 points
6 – David Reutimann, 426 points (2 poles)
7 – Juan Montoya, 420 points (1 pole)
8 – Kasey Kahne, 399 points
9 – Kurt Busch, 395 points
10 – Ryan Newman, 394 points (1 pole)
11 – Greg Biffle, 319 points
12 – Tony Stewart, 285 points
13 – Martin Truex Jr, 279 points (1 pole)
14 – Denny Hamlin, 258 points
15 – Marcos Ambrose, 240 points
16 – Scott Speed, 183 points
17 – Matt Kenseth, 172 points (1 pole)
18 – Joey Logano, 156 points
19 – Sam Hornish Jr, 153 points
20 – Clint Bowyer, 145 points

Tez's NASCAR Race Championship - after 23 rounds:

1 – Tony Stewart, 712.5 points (3 wins)
2 – Jeff Gordon, 669 points (1 win)
3 – Jimmie Johnson, 586.5 points (3 wins)
4 – Mark Martin, 467 points (4 wins)
5 – Denny Hamlin, 438 points (1 win)
6 – Kurt Busch, 437 points (1 win)
7 – Carl Edwards, 421 points
8 – Brian Vickers, 399 points (1 win)
9 – Greg Biffle, 390.5 points
10 – Matt Kenseth, 374.5 points (2 wins)
11 – Clint Bowyer, 360 points
12 – Juan Montoya, 346.5 points
13 – Kasey Kahne, 345.5 points (1 win)
14 – Ryan Newman, 320 points
15 – David Reutimann, 291 points (1 win)
16 – Kyle Busch, 275.5 points (3 wins)
17 – Marcos Ambrose, 221.5 points
18 – Kevin Harvick, 214 points
19 – Dale Earnhardt Jr, 208.5 points
20 – Jeff Burton, 205.5 points

I suppose the main surprises is exactly how different my top 12 in the RC is from the official one and how close Gordon still is to Stewart...all to play for with three chances left for those outside to sneak in.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ambrose goes back-to-back at Watkins Glen

First things first, big thanks to everyone on here since it's been a few days and anyone could have posted but I'm going to have to believe you're letting me do the honours since it's 'my guy' :)

Ok, last years Nationwide race at Watkins Glen saw Marcos score his first victory in the States...but he was incredibly lucky since the guys he was racing ran out of fuel. He led just a handful of laps all day, one around the time of his final pitstop and then at the end. This wasn't quite the drive one had expected of the Aussie given his dominance in the rain of Montreal the week before. However, he hadn't gotten any wins by being dominant and every driver would gladly take a win on fuel mileage over none at all. But it was still via fuel mileage...and, like rain-shortened races, there is always a debate amongst fans whether winning like that should count.

Well, Marcos certainly ended any doubts over that last weekend.

In his first start in a Nationwide car since Homestead last November, Marcos proved that 2008 was no fluke and qualified second, shaking the rust off with a lap record that Kevin Harvick only just managed to beat right at the end of qualifying. I won't bore everyone with a full race-recap as there's only one part of the race that got people talking; Marcos' bold pass on Kyle Busch with a dozen or so laps to go.

There are those who will say it was dirty and those who will hail it as a fantastic piece of opportunistic driving and I'm not going to bother trying to sway you either way. It takes huge confidence in your fellow racer to put your entire race in their hands, forcing them to choose between letting you go or wrecking both cars. Marcos knew this, heck, he's tried some spectacular moves in the V8's...with varying degrees of success.

Who says you can't pass the leader on a road course anymore?

But the main reason why he figured this pass would work was who he was racing against; a title contender.

Ignore, if you can, Kyle's reputation, and put yourself in his shoes for a minute. You're racing a full season in an effort to win the championship and have a handy points lead over the guy in second. Are you really going to risk a collision with a driver who's only going to race a couple times in the year and losing, more or less, half that points gap? On such momentum can a title be decided.

I didn't think you would.

Kyle did exactly what he had to do; stay in the race to consolidate his points lead over Carl Edwards. Marcos did exactly what he had to do; put Kyle in a position where he had to back off. In doing so, he erased the murmurs from a year ago and proved that yes, Marcos Ambrose is indeed a racer and will fight against the best when he has the equipment. This is his fourth year in NASCAR so he's got a decent amount of experience now and most people expected him to contend for the win on road courses in the Cup series this year, let alone the two Nationwide events he was booked in for.

Last Saturday, Marcos proved those expectations were put on the right guy...and gave his fans some funky new pictures to have as their computer background at the same time *laugh*

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Team Vodafone switches sides for 2010

There were grumbling in the V8 supercar paddock last year about the possibility of the Champion team changing from Ford to Holden given that Ford were not putting their support behind them. Indeed, such was the strength of that rumour that Team Vodafone ditched the large blue 'Ford' decal that dorns the front windscreen (Australian sport, Australian terms so deal with it *laugh*).

Fast forward some eight months and we find the rumour to be true.

Jamie Whincup (the 2008 champion and current points leader) and Craig Lowndes (three time series Champion, ironically all with Holden) will be swapping the blue oval for the red lion. Ordinarily this wouldn't be such a huge deal...teams flip flop depending on who looks to be the better option after all (why else would Robby Gordon go through each manufacturer in the last 4 years?)...but this isn't a midfield team. The equivalent would be Rick Hendrick holding a press conference tomorrow saying they'd be using Dodges for 2010.

Lowndes behind the wheel of his Triple Eight Ford.

Now, unlike a lot of V8 fans, I'm not all that fussed over which brand to support as I have my favourite drivers and follow them, regardless of what they drive. But this is a pretty big thing as it also answers the question of whether Whincup would head offshore or stay in V8 Supercars.

Team Vodafone came into the series in 2004, under the umbrella of Triple Eight Racing. They had a proven pedigree in motorsport, having won 12 British Touring Car titles but struggled in their debut year, the drivers finishing 19th (Paul Radisich) and 28th (Max Wilson) in points. 2005 saw Craig Lowndes join the team in place of Radisich and Steve Ellery replacing Wilson. Lowndes nearly snatched the title away from the, at the time, all-conquering Stone Brothers Racing duo of Russell Ingall and Marcos Ambrose but still, second place in the points was a huge form reversal from the year before.

Jamie Whincup was then put in Ellery's seat for 2006, making an immediate impression by winning the first race of the season at Adelaide. This also marked the beginning of their Bathurst domination. 2007 saw no driver changes but the sponsor did; out went Betta Electrical and in came Vodafone. This didn't really slow them down but the championship eluded them yet again, this time Whincup got beat out by Garth Tander.

Whincup leads the field...a usual sight in 2009.

Which leads us nicely to now.

Having thoroughly dominated 2008 and the first half of 2009, why did Ford let them go? Only they know but Holden must be relishing the idea of rubbing Ford's noses in it when the 2010 season opener comes around.

Statistics for Triple Eight Racing/Team Vodafone since 2004:
race wins - 11
round wins - 20
pole positions - 4
driver titles - 1 (2008)
constructor titles - 1 (2008)