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.”

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Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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