Marcos Ambrose falls short of earning Chase berth at Watkins Glen, but still has a chance with 4 races left

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Marcos Ambrose went for the weekend sweep, but in the end, he got the brush-off from A.J. Allmendinger.

In perhaps both Ambrose’s best and last chance to make the Chase – and potentially competing in the last road course race of his NASCAR career – Ambrose came up short, finishing second to Allmendinger in Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International.

Ambrose won Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at WGI and was the overwhelming favorite to win Sunday’s Sprint Cup race.

But Allmendinger engaged in a tight but clean finish, particularly on the final two laps of the race following a final caution and resulting restart, got ahead of Ambrose and went on to his first Sprint Cup career win.

To his credit, Ambrose was quite cordial about being the first loser.

“First of all, congratulations to AJ,” Ambrose told ESPN. “He really deserved that win because I was giving it everything I had to rattle his cage. He withstood the pressure and congratulations to him.

“We had a great day on the Stanley Ford. We had a little mistake on pit lane, I half-stalled leaving the box and I think that was the difference today between winning and second place.”

No one had to tell Ambrose the significance of Sunday’s race. Had he won, as he had done twice previously in Cup races at the nearly 2.5-mile twisting road course, Ambrose would likely have punched his ticket to the expanded 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins five weeks from now.

Instead, Ambrose remains on the outside of the Chase looking in.

While he mathematically moved up to 16th in the Sprint Cup standings, there are four drivers behind him in the rankings that have at least one win this season, meaning they’d vault over Ambrose to make the Chase: Allmendinger, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Ambrose’s Richard Petty Motorsports teammate, Aric Almirola.

For Ambrose to have any chance to make the final 16 without earning a win, he’d have to climb to at least 12th position after Richmond to sneak into the Chase only on points.

Unfortunately, Ambrose is still 42 points behind the current 12th-place holder,Greg Biffle, with four races left. While it’s not an impossible task to reach 12th, it definitely won’t be easy – if Ambrose can do it at all.

That leaves Ambrose back to square one: His only other chance to make the Chase is to do so on an oval at one of the four remaining pre-Chase tracks: Michigan this coming Sunday, Bristol, Atlanta and the final Chase qualifier at Richmond next month.

“We put a lot of effort into this race, knew it was our best shot at the Chase and it was this close,” Ambrose said. “I’m pretty disappointed just because there’s so much to win, so much effort, but congratulations to AJ.”

ESPN reported that Ambrose’s crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, planned to question NASCAR about the final restart – believing it may have been improper – Ambrose downplayed the impact such a query might bring.

“It didn’t change the outcome of the race,” Ambrose said. “We raced each other to the line and he was the winner.”

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F1 2017 driver review: Esteban Ocon

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Esteban Ocon

Team: Sahara Force India
Car No.: 31
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P5 (Spain, Mexico)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 87
Championship Position: 8th

A shining star in Mercedes’ junior programme, Esteban Ocon vaulted fellow youngster Pascal Wehrlein in the pecking order to secure a seat at Force India for 2017 – and boy, did he live up to the hype.

Ocon arrived at Force India with half a season of racing under his belt after his outings with Manor late in 2016, but wasted little time in settling in, scoring points on debut in Australia after winning a thrilling three-way fight with Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso.

The Frenchman spent much of the year close to teammate Sergio Perez – even if things did get a little too close in Canada, Baku and, finally, Spa, prompting the team to introduce team orders – and impressed the entire paddock with his displays.

While no podium was forthcoming, Ocon was often leading the midfield fight, enjoying three straight finishes ahead of Perez from Japan to Mexico. Given how well Perez is rated on-track in the paddock, to have convincingly beaten him in such fashion did a lot for Ocon’s reputation.

The term ‘Oconsistency’ also came into F1’s dictionary as he set a new record for consecutive finishes from his first race, with his retirement in Brazil ending the streak at 27 grands prix. It was also his first retirement in a single-seater race since the 2014 Macau Grand Prix.

The highlight moment arguably came at Monza, though, when Ocon stuck his Force India third on the grid through torrential rain in qualifying. While he would drop to P6 at the checkered flag, the display nevertheless cemented his place as one of F1’s rising stars.

Mercedes rates Ocon very highly, and with Valtteri Bottas’ future beyond 2018 already being questioned by the paddock, a good season could see the youngster move on up to the top table of F1 for 2019. His progression in the next 12 months will be fascinating to keep track of.

Season High: Lining up P3 on the grid at Monza after a rainy qualifying.

Season Low: Clashing with Perez in Baku, costing Force India a possible podium.