By Dan Beaver
The Sports Xchange
When Marcos Ambrose finished third at Watkins Glen International in a Wood Brothers Ford last August, he wasn't that surprised even though it was only his third Sprint Cup start. The reason: It was on his specialty, a road course.
But it didn't take that long for Ambrose to notch a top-10 on an oval track: Thirteen races later, he finished 10th in Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
"I'm really keen to trying to break that mentality thing of a road-racing guy," Ambrose said. "I know I'm good on road courses, but I want to be good at every single track we go to."
His finish Sunday tells only part of the story. Qualifying 13th, he first climbed into the top five by staying on track during an early race pit stop, but even after stopping for his own service, he stayed in sight of the leaders.
In fact, if not for losing two cylinders late in the race, significantly hampering the horsepower in his Toyota, Ambrose would likely have finished among the top five after spending more than half the race running fifth or better.
"We lost the number two and number four cylinders today so we were running on six at the end, but somehow we brought it home," he said with a definite sense of pride in his achievement despite the mechanical failure.
Ambrose could have been disappointed that a strained engine cost him a shot at victory, but he saw the larger perspective instead.
"It just feels great to be up there racing with those guys, passing Jeff Gordon. I mean, he's just a hero of mine," Ambrose said. "I've just watched him forever and just admired him so much. We've been sneaking up there getting more confident. We've had good runs every single race this year. We've just had problems."
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Jimmie Johnson was another driver content with his finishing position in the Food City 500. He entered the weekend practicing the power of positive thinking and telling reporters that he was going to love this track -- after suffering through so much disappointment recently at Bristol.
And toward the end of his third-place finish, he came close to genuinely feeling those emotions.
"I was actually enjoying the race toward the end," Johnson said. "I ran up front all day long and I led laps. I like this race track. Truthfully, I wish we had another 500 laps to go. I feel great. I'm really getting a rhythm of this race track and understanding what I need to do and how to lead Chad (crew chief Chad Knaus) in adjustments."
Even while winning the last three Sprint Cup championships, Bristol has always been a thorn in Johnson's side. He had only one top-15 there in 2006-08, and his average finish in that span was 21.3. The results were bad enough, but the demoralizing fact was that he was never in contention to win at Bristol, which left him confused about adjustments that needed to be made to his car or his driving style.
Finishing third finally gives Johnson some positives to build on.
"To be that close to a win and to see the 18 car (of winner Kyle Busch) pull into victory lane, I can now see what the leaders do and I can visualize being in that position someday," Johnson said. "Before, we were so far off and had some decent runs but really weren't in the race, racing for the win. Today we did that."
Most important, they are building their own notebook instead of relying on recycled setups from their teammates -- something that has not worked in the past.
"Now that we've executed from qualifying to the race, we have a very good starting point to come back with," Johnson said. "And that's something we haven't had. Every time we've come back, we've been chasing one of our teammates' ideas, then trying to put my style of setup under it. This weekend we didn't play that game. We stuck to our guns. I feel coming back we'll be much better."
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Johnson and Ambrose might have been content with their accomplishments, but second-place finisher Denny Hamlin was not.
Hamlin has publicly claimed that finishing up front is not good enough any longer. He believes that he should have racked up more victories in his tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing, and that feeling was underscored by watching teammate Kyle Busch record eight victories last year in his first season with the organization.
Finishing second is "somewhat of a redemption, but we feel like we deserve to be in victory lane and hopefully we'll get that done next week," Hamlin said at the end of the race.
He has a good chance of backing up that prediction after winning the spring Martinsville race in his home state of Virginia last year, which is where NASCAR's road show goes next week.
Last year during the fall race at Bristol, Kyle Busch led 415 consecutive laps and was leading on lap 469 of 500 with the checkers in sight. Running second at the time, Carl Edwards nudged him out of the groove and scooted on to victory lane while Busch grudgingly settled for second. Hamlin finished third and had a great view of the battle.
With a handful of laps remaining in this year's Food City 500, Busch had a comfortable lead over the field until a yellow flag waved. Ironically, the caution was brought out for a blown engine on teammate Joey Logano's No. 20 Toyota, which allowed Hamlin and Johnson to close on Busch.
With a teammate on his back bumper, Busch was not concerned about getting booted out of the way, but he jumped out to a sizable lead during the final green-white-checkered laps just to be certain.
As it turns out, that was a good plan because Hamlin was hungry for the win.
"I would've raced him hard, I definitely would," Hamlin said. "I'd treat him as if he wasn't a teammate, actually. I wouldn't try to hit him hard enough to send him up to the wall, but I'd definitely try to get him out of the groove. They've had their fair share of wins and it was time for us, but not today."