By John Kekis
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.: Marcos Ambrose was blunt and to the point as he contemplated the twists and turns of Watkins Glen International.
“I don’t know much about what’s going to happen, but I do know that I’ve got Tony Stewart covered,” said Ambrose, who has won the past two Cup races at the storied track in upstate New York. “I don’t think he’ll be a challenge this weekend.”
Stewart likely would have been a factor. He has a Sprint Cup-record five victories at The Glen, the last coming four years ago when he easily beat Ambrose by nearly three seconds. But the man known as Smoke is out indefinitely with a broken right leg suffered in a sprint car crash in Iowa six days ago and will be replaced in the No. 14 Chevrolet by road racer Max Papis for today’s Cheez-It 355 at The Glen.
“It’s an honor to be called to fill the shoes of Tony,” said Papis, whose best finish in 35 Cup starts was an eighth here in 2009. “I feel I have a lot of confidence to go out there and give them a positive result.”
Track officials are expecting a near-record crowd, the exception for a series that has seen too many rows of empty seats since the economic downturn. Sunny skies with temperatures around 80 are predicted, and that’s a big factor in the turnout, but anyone who saw the finishes of the past two Cup races here have to be thirsting for another — Ambrose, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski staged scintillating duels for the victory at the end of each race.
The victories continued the aggressive Australian’s amazing record at Watkins Glen — in five starts, he has an average finish of second. Though everybody points to him as the man to beat when the Cup series races on the road courses at Sonoma and The Glen, Ambrose knows he’s been fortunate here.
“If the circumstances had fallen the same way again, I may not have won [last year],” said Ambrose, who will start from the pole for the first time in this race. “It was quite a lucky break to get that win. To be honest with you, I look at that race and I wish I had won it by eight seconds and not by one car-length.”
With only five races to go before the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and the points standings so tight for the final four spots in the 12-driver field, a late caution will create another frantic finish. The top 10 drivers in points automatically make the Chase and the two drivers from 11th to 20th in points with the most wins get wild-card berths.
Keselowski, the reigning Cup champion, is 12th, just nine points behind Greg Biffle in 10th, but does not have a victory. Right in his rearview mirror are winless Kurt Busch of Furniture Row Racing, Sonoma winner Martin Truex Jr. of Michael Waltrip Racing, and Stewart’s teammate, Ryan Newman. All will gain something because of Stewart’s absence since he’s 11th in the standings with one victory.
If the intensity is ratcheting up for the Chasers, it’s no less on Ambrose. He knows a win would vault him into the top 20 and at least move him into contention as a long shot at a wild card.
And, of course, there are those great expectations, especially after a record-setting qualifying lap on Saturday.
“I come here, and all of a sudden it’s like you’re expected to win,” said Ambrose, who drives the No. 9 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports. “This weekend is actually more of a stress-out than last week, and that’s hard to sometimes balance. The sponsors know it should be a good weekend and the team expects a good weekend, and you guys do and the fans do. So, all of a sudden, if you don’t perform on those days, it adds even more pressure to what you do every other week.”