Going into a critical race for his Chase hopes on Sunday, Marcos Ambrose got the one thing he needed to get today in the NASCAR Nationwide Series’ Zippo 200 at Watkins Glen International.
Ambrose survived an early run-in with Kyle Busch that sent them both spinning off course, and then held off Busch in the final laps to claim his fourth consecutive Nationwide victory at the Glen.
Now comes the big one – Sunday’s Cheez-It 355, which Ambrose and his No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports team have targeted as their best opportunity to win and get into the Sprint Cup postseason.
“I’m just gonna enjoy today,” Ambrose said to ESPN. “Anytime you get in Victory Lane, it’s something special. I’d love to repeat, but there’s a lot of work to do tomorrow and I want to think about it, have a good night’s rest, and come and attack tomorrow.”
Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski of Team Penske finished third and fourth, followed by Matt Kenseth in fifth place.
Nationwide Series points leader Chase Elliott was the top Nationwide regular in sixth place and also extended his lead in the championship to 12 points over Regan Smith.
Smith finished 17th after a tough day that saw him give up gobs of track position because of having to pit twice under green in the second half of the race – once for a loose right front wheel and again because of grille debris that was overheating his car.
On Lap 6 of today’s race, Busch appeared to try and go to the inside of Ambrose for third at the “bus stop” chicane. But instead, both car went sliding out of the Top 10.
Both of them earned some ground back by the time the first caution of the day came out at Lap 12 due to debris from an incident involving Kenny Habul and Trevor Bayne.
Ambrose was the first to come to the pits from seventh, leading drivers like Busch, Elliott, and Elliott Sadler in with him.
Pole sitter Keselowski led the field to the restart at Lap 16, but started the leaders’ first wave of stops by pitting on Lap 18. The cycle was still in progress when Bayne got into the back of Kevin O’Connell at the bus stop, sending O’Connell into the wall to trigger Caution No. 2.
By virtue of pitting under the first caution, James Buescher, J.J. Yeley, and Brennan Newberry were the Top 3 at the time of the caution. But when those three drivers chose to go in for service, Ambrose and Busch cycled to the top two spots in a quick recovery from their earlier incident.
Off the restart at Lap 31, Ambrose held the point while Logano passed Busch for 2nd and Kenseth did the same to Keselowski for fourth. Four laps later, Bayne got involved in another caution when he and J.J. Yeley made contact heading into Turn 6.
That turned Yeley into the outside wall, and after he parked his heavily damaged car near the entrance of Turn 7, he gestured to Bayne as he and the rest of the field rolled by under the yellow.
Ambrose continued to control the race after the restart at Lap 39, but the field was bunched up again by another debris yellow at the halfway point, Lap 41.
They set ’em loose at Lap 44, and Ambrose and Logano quickly pulled a gap to third-place Busch, while Keselowski and Kenseth battled for fourth.
On Lap 49, Ambrose abandoned the lead for his second stop, with Logano doing the same on Lap 50. As Logano came out of the pits, he and Ambrose went side-by-side through the esses before Ambrose was able to get in front of him.
During the cycle, Smith pitted on Lap 52 but had to return to the pits because the lug nuts on his right front wheel weren’t all tight. Smith, who entered the day down just two points in the NNS championship, fell all the way out of the Top 25 on the track.
Brendan Gaughan’s stop on Lap 57 moved Ambrose back to the top. Leading up to that, Ambrose had gotten away from Logano on the track and when Gaughan went in, the Aussie assumed an edge of almost three seconds.
That edge disappeared when Landon Cassill suffered an apparent tire failure and slowed in Turn 6 to bring out the caution. Drivers such as Bayne, Brian Scott, and Paul Menard decided to pit, but Ambrose, Logano and the other leaders stayed on track for the restart with 20 laps left.
With 19 to go, Keselowski and Busch battled for third place going into the bus stop. But Keselowski carried too much speed into the corner and went into the inside grass before coming back on course.
Keselowski dropped back to sixth but was able to earn two of the lost spots back in a short time. Behind them, Smith was marching toward the Top 10 after a superb restart but the aforementioned debris on his grille forced him to come in again.
But up front, Ambrose remained smooth, holding a steady lead of around 1.5 to two seconds over Logano until Busch took control of second with five to go.
Busch made progress in cutting Ambrose’s lead down to less than a second going into the final lap, but Ambrose was able to hold on.