Ambrose wins Sprint Cup pole at Watkins Glen

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Two-time defending Watkins Glen winner Marcos Ambrose snatched the pole for tomorrow’s Cheez-It 355 at the Glen, coming out of the final group of qualifiers to take the honor with a track-record lap of 68.777 seconds in the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford.

The next-to-last qualifying group, Group 7, appeared to have made the biggest impact on Saturday morning as Clint Bowyer, A.J. Allmendinger and Kyle Busch took the top three overall spots with their laps before Ambrose got his opportunity. But the Launceston, Tasmania native was able to vault over them all and claim his third career Sprint Cup pole.

“I got really loose up through the esses there and came very close to the outside wall coming out of Turn 3, Turn 4, and that got me out of the groove,” Ambrose said to ESPN after his run. “But my guys did a great job – I lost my cool yesterday in practice, because I felt I was behind and we made some great changes coming into today’s qualifying.

“I gotta thank [crew chief] Drew Blickensderfer and all the team at Stanley and Richard Petty Motorsports. They did a great job giving me just the car I needed, and I’m very proud of our day.”

As for Bowyer, who has evolved into a stout road racer himself, he was forced to settle for the outside front row with his lap of 68.929 seconds in the No. 15 “Duck Dynasty”-backed Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota.

“These road courses have become something that I look forward to,” he told ESPN. “I never would’ve thought I would ever say that. But we’re certainly having fun. We’ve got a good group.

“[Crew chief] Brian Pattie built a really good race car, he’s had a lot of success here and won a lot of races here. I told him, ‘I was gonna be heavy, you’re gonna have to carry me this weekend,’ and he’s been doing a pretty good job of carrying me so far.”

Martin Truex Jr., who is looking to sweep the road courses in 2013 after winning earlier this year at Sonoma, will roll off from the inside of Row 2 tomorrow alongside Allmendinger, who fell to fourth on the grid. Row 3 features Kyle Busch and Jamie McMurray, followed by Paul Menard and Brad Keselowski in Row 4, and Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth in Row 5.

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds