Marcos Ambrose has priorities in place: Win at Sonoma, make Chase, re-sign with RPM

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Marcos Ambrose still dreams of winning a race on a Sprint Cup oval.

But if Ambrose is to have a fighting chance to make the field in this year’s revamped and expanded Chase for the Sprint Cup, his best bet to at least get a leg up is to win Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

Ambrose is arguably one of the best road course racers in the Sprint Cup Series. In six starts at Watkins Glen, which holds its annual race in August, Ambrose has two wins and five top-five finishes, plus a pole.

As for Sonoma, Ambrose also has six Cup starts there, but has yet to reach victory lane. However, he does have two wins and three other top-10 finishes, plus a pole.

Ambrose hopes to change that Sunday.

“We know that the race here this weekend and in Watkins Glen, the two road races, are our best chance to win a race this year,” Ambrose said on Wednesday’s weekly NASCAR media teleconference. “That will automatically lock us into the Chase.  Clearly there’s a lot to race for at these two tracks for us.

“We’ve put a lot of energy and effort into Sonoma. We went out there and did the Goodyear tire test earlier in the season. We’ve done some road course testing as well, so we feel we’re as ready as we can be.”

When asked about why he’s won two road courses in the Cup series but still has yet to earn his first oval victory, Ambrose was realistic.

“My natural skill set obviously is road racing,” he said. “I’m quite confident on the ovals but haven’t had the same success I’ve had on the road courses. Really it’s just the years of training.  It’s my niche.

“I feel very comfortable road racing. I feel like I can apply myself well on the weekend. The biggest thing I try to do on a buildup to a weekend like this, there’s pressure building, there’s a chance to lock yourself into the Chase, which would make your season, you get a chance to win a Sprint Cup race, which you don’t get to do very often.  What I do this weekend is not try to think about it, be normal, try to relax leading into this week.

“It’s always a pressure-filled environment. The more you think about it, the worse you tend to go. I try to rely on my instincts there. I don’t do anything special this week in preparation for it. But I also know there’s a lot on the line and that pressure is all present. Whatever you can do to try to minimize the pressure is a good thing.”

Making the Chase “certainly would make our year,” Ambrose said.

But at the same time, “I haven’t made it to the Chase yet. This format will give us our best chance to do it, if we can win a race at either Watkins Glen or Sonoma. We know that. It would really make our year, no doubt about it.  It would certainly make our sponsors and Richard Petty very happy.

“We can’t do anything but go out there and try and do it. Talking isn’t going to get it done. We all know what is at stake. I think our team has prepared the car as best we can and I’m as ready as I can be and we’ll see if we can get it done.”

With perhaps his best chance at making the Chase this season, Ambrose was asked his thoughts about potentially adding a road course to the Chase sometime in the future.

“I’m not going to second guess what NASCAR are doing,” Ambrose said. “They’ve got a Chase format. They’ve built this sport up to what it is today. The idea of the Chase is to find the best driver and team for the year, allow them to race for the championship.

“There is an argument to say if you want to be the complete package, you have to be good on road courses as well. But I’m happy with the schedule. If I can win a race here road racing, it’s going to lock me in the Chase, it’s a real win for me.

“Would I like to see more road races? I think the fans need to be asked that question, not the drivers. Really our sport is about the fans, what they like to see.

“Anecdotally, there’s always a huge crowd at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. They seem to get good ratings on TV. There is an argument there you could have more road races in the schedule. But certainly I’m not the one promoting that. I’ll just let NASCAR make their choices.”

Ambrose was again asked his future status with Richard Petty Motorsports. His contract expires at the end of this season, but he still has nothing new to report.

“I’m in a renewal year with Richard Petty for 2015,” he said. “I’m not really thinking about myself here. I just want the best for RPM. They have decisions to make along the way here. I want to help them make their decisions and be where they want to be.

“I haven’t really thought about anything much but that. I want to make sure that RPM are on the right path and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I help them do that.”

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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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