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: Nico Hulkenberg

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Nico Hulkenberg

Team: Renault
Car No.: 27
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P6 (Spain, Great Britain, Belgium, Abu Dhabi)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 43
Championship Position: 10th

Expectations were hard to peg for Renault heading into its second full season back in F1 with a factory team, but Nico Hulkenberg was surely expected to be the man spearheading its charge.

With teammate Jolyon Palmer severely underperforming, Hulkenberg did exactly that, bringing home all but 14 of the team’s points in the final standings. However, consistency was never something he truly found.

Many of Renault’s issues were down to reliability issues, sidelining Hulkenberg for six races – four coming in a five-race stint from Singapore to Mexico – yet he only scored points in consecutive races on three occasions.

When Hulkenberg and Renault were on form, they proved to be a potent combination, often topping the midfield fight and even looking faster than Force India come the end of the season. His run to sixth at the final race in Abu Dhabi was crucial for the constructors’ championship as Renault jumped Toro Rosso, securing an extra slice of prize money in the process.

But for a driver who was so often tipped as being a future star in F1, Hulkenberg still has a lot to prove. Renault is set to offer a good platform for the German moving forward with factory support, yet if he cannot beat new teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. through 2018, concerns will surely be raised.

Season High: Charging to sixth in Abu Dhabi despite a penalty.

Season Low: A tough run to 16th in Malaysia.