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Marcos Ambrose hopes for big rebound for himself, Richard Petty Motorsports in 2014

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Marcos Ambrose doesn’t mince words: Last year was the most trying season yet in NASCAR.

“Certainly, 2013 was the most difficult year of my racing career,” Ambrose said in an interview with MotorSportsTalk. “The fact that I’ve always been on an upward trend in NASCAR, 2013 was the first year that I flattened off and even dropped back down.”

And if things don’t markedly improve for the Australian native this season, it could potentially be Ambrose’s last season in NASCAR.

“If I have another year like (2013), I’m going to have to really start scratching my head and have a good hard think about what I’m doing because this year is certainly the year we need to break out and do something special,” Ambrose said.

Ambrose, 37, finished 22nd last season, the second-worst showing in his Sprint Cup career (finished 26th in 2010).

After winning one race each in both 2011 and 2012, as well as a combined eight top-five finishes those two seasons, Ambrose struggled miserably in 2013, with no wins or top-five finishes, and just six top-10s.

His average finish of 19.9 in last season’s 36 races was nothing short of embarrassing, Ambrose admitted.

“It just didn’t work out for us,” he said. “I think there was a combination of factors, the new rules package that came out, we got behind early on and I just really struggled to get a feel driving for the car. I felt like I just never had the feeling I needed.”

Yet Ambrose has good reason to feel much more optimistic heading into the 2014 season. Significant investments into improving the overall standing of Richard Petty Motorsports will hopefully pay off in big dividends.

“Our race team is really reinvigorated,” Ambrose said. “We’ve added a lot of human resources to our program in 2014 and have created a (research and development) program. That’s the first time that has happened since I’ve been at Richard Petty Motorsports.

“We’re really excited about the potential of unlocking some more brain power in our race program and we’re thrilled to not only keep what we have since I joined Richard Petty Motorsports. I joined it at a fairly tumultuous time, it was a difficult time for Richard and everybody to rebrand the company, to revive the company and take it from the crumbs.

“I’ve seen it at its darkest days and I’m really looking forward to 2014 because I think it’s the year that (RPM) can break out and really show everybody the maturity that it’s taken since I’ve been there, which is four years now. At the end of the day, we’re all racing to win and put Richard Petty back in victory lane. We’ve been able to do it occasionally over the last couple years, but we want to do it on a more frequent basis if we can.”

Petty concurs with Ambrose’s optimism, a trait that has contagiously swept throughout RPM during the offseason, bringing the company to a point it hasn’t been in a long time.

“We’re probably in the best shape we’ve been in the last three or four years,” Petty said. “Everybody knows we hit the bottom of the deal three years ago. … We just tried to get some foundation (since then). I don’t know if our year (2013) was that much better than the year before, but we were a lot more stable.”

But at the same time, Petty’s admittedly concerned about Ambrose’s future, as well as the future of the No. 9 Ford Fusion. Once the picture of optimism and excitement, last year’s struggles had a decidedly negative impact upon Ambrose.

“I don’t know how much longer he wants to stay in the U.S.,” Petty said candidly. “You know, (Ambrose has) come a long way. He’s sort of a hero in Australia just because he’s running Cup. His big deal is if he could win on a round and around racetrack, that would be the optimum for him. If he did do that, he’d probably just go home and say, ‘Thank you guys,’ but I don’t know.”

That may be the case, but Ambrose is determined to show last season was an aberration. If he can turn things around and bounce back this season as he hopes, Ambrose will likely continue his Cup career for a few more years.

“Where the rules are going this year, it’s going to give us a better chance to make the Chase and really do something special,” Ambrose said. “The gloves are off and we’re looking forward to turning a fresh page.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Graham Rahal

Graham Rahal
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MotorSportsTalk continues its driver-by-driver review of the field in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next up is fourth-placed Graham Rahal, who had a career year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2014: 19th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 4th, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 4 Top-10s, 28 Laps Led, 14.4 Avg. Start, 15.0 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 4th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 5th, 6 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 10 Top-10s, 76 Laps Led, 11.0 Avg Start, 8.5 Avg. Finish

Formula 1 fans will remember the miraculous, shock rise of Brawn GP, which didn’t even exist as a team until mere weeks before the 2009 Australian Grand Prix having risen from the demise of the former Honda factory team, and then promptly proceeded to stomp the field en route to winning both the Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships that season.

It’s the best racing comparison in recent years – or perhaps any year – for what was done at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2015, courtesy of a career year from Graham Rahal, an instant chemistry renewal with the people father Bobby put in place, and the fact Bobby himself stepped back this year to allow his team’s key players to shine through.

Because quite simply, after finishes of 18th and 19th the last two seasons, no one in their right mind had Rahal winning races and contending for a championship this season.

It’s hard to say specifically which point was most important, because all played dividends. Bobby Rahal moved off the pit box, and actually missed a fair number of races this year, which allowed Graham and team manager Ricardo Nault to gel with Nault on the radio and pretty much running the team on the whole. Then there were the three key crewmember additions: Eddie Jones moving over to be lead engineer on the No. 15 car was clutch, as was Rahal getting the opportunity to reunite with Martin Pare and work for the first time with Mike Talbott. The addition of damper ace Stuart Kenworthy was not covered much this year, but undoubtedly a big help. Sponsor Steak ‘n Shake’s arrival also brought a wealth of attention.

And then there were the drives in the races themselves. Perhaps strangely, Rahal had a tough qualifying average – only 11th – but it was the best for a Honda driver this year. The strategy calls from RLL were damn near perfect all year and Rahal seized every opportunity at his disposal, be it his wins at Fontana and Mid-Ohio, his recovery at Iowa, and his numerous other podiums throughout the year. His charge to second at Barber stands out as one of the drives of the year.

Call Fontana lucky if you will, and he was fortunate to avoid a penalty for leaving with the fuel buckeye, but even so he still could have come back given where the race was at that point. And being on the receiving end of two ill-advised taps from Tristan Vautier and Sebastien Bourdais at Pocono and Sonoma, respectively, cost him huge results and huge points – the net effect of three races.

The single-car title charge was one of the stories of the year, even beyond Scott Dixon’s championship comeback and Juan Pablo Montoya’s consistent-until-Sonoma season. Rahal re-established his credentials on track if people had forgotten what he was capable of; additionally, he reaffirmed his status as one of racing’s best people with his work in the Justin Wilson memorial auction after that tragedy. It was truly a ’15 to remember for the driver of the No. 15 car.

Nick Tandy is on a ridiculous roll of form of late

Tandy (second from left) is on a roll. Photo: Getty Images
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With the international sports car season nearing its conclusion after a few more FIA World Endurance Championship and other international GT championship events, the question begins to be asked who might be the driver of the year.

There’s a British driver who’s pretty much firmly got that title wrapped at the moment – Nick Tandy – even though the nature of his season means he is unlikely to capture any championship on his own!

Tandy has competed in the full FIA World Endurance Championship season, splitting his time between the LMP2 class Oreca 05 Nissan from KCMG and a third Porsche 919 Hybrid in LMP1, which he drove at Spa and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Though Nico Hulkenberg got many non-insider accolades for his drive at Le Mans, it was truly Tandy’s overnight stint, coupled with regular fellow factory Porsche pilot Earl Bamber, that won the race for the No. 19 Porsche.

That win for Tandy has kicked off a ridiculous run of form, culminating with his shock – but thoroughly well-deserved – overall win Saturday night at Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda, co-driving the No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR with Patrick Pilet (Richard Lietz, the designated third driver, did not drive).

Tandy won three consecutive GT Le Mans class races at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Road America and Virginia International Raceway.

A week after VIR, Tandy was back at KCMG for the first time since Silverstone in April and co-drove to victory in the LMP2 class at the Nürburgring.

After a relatively “rough” month of September where Tandy and Pilet needed a late splash of fuel to make the finish and lost a shot at a fourth straight GTLM class win, they rebounded this weekend at Petit Le Mans.

“The fact that we were a lot of time the fastest cars on track, so by racing against each other, naturally we had to race against the prototypes. So when they were in our way we had to race against us,” Tandy explained post-race at Petit Le Mans of his drive against, and past, the prototypes.

“When the race was coming to a close, I was aware that the 31 car was in the lead, but I knew if we had another rain shower I knew we would checker the race, so that was why I was pushing so hard to get ahead of the GTLM cars, and once I had done that and we had a really good pace and were comfortable we were catching the 31.

“It was a case of just pulling ahead of the rest, but we ended up winning overall, so it was fantastic. [opening] “The opening stint opened our eyes to the fact that we could actually be fighting for the overall victory, the fact we came from the back of the field to I think we were running second on pure pace.

“To be honest, the first 2 hours were the best conditions we had. We had consistent rain, but very little running water. Clearly towards the end, it dried out a little more and our pace compared to the other classes and the BMW and Corvettes came back. It was a race of two halves really.”