For Marcos Ambrose, Monday's rain-delayed Sprint Cup race at the historic Watkins Glen road course may have been the thrill of his life. For Kansas City-area veteran NASCAR drivers Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer, though, it turned out to be just another ho-hum back-to-back finish.
Columbia, Mo.'s, Edwards and Bowyer, who hails from Emporia, Kan., approximately the same distance, but opposite direction, west of Greater Kansas City, finished 11th and 12th on Monday. But the real story is, this marked the tenth time this season out of 21 Sprint Cup races that Edwards and Bowyer have come to the finish line in back-to-back order. I couldn't tell you if that is a record or not, but it sure strikes me as a curious and fun coincidence.
Timing is everything, and Marcos Ambrose found that out up close and personal when he passed Brad Keselowski's No. 2 Dodge for Penske Racing on the white lap of a green-white-checkered finish at historic Watkins Glen International road course on Monday to become the fifth first-time winner this year at NASCAR's top racing level, the Sprint Cup Series.
For car owner Richard Petty Motorsports, the road-course victory at Watkins Glen marked the team's first win in 2011 and only its third overall. It took Ambrose 105 tries to get his first Cup win, and somehow it always seemed destined to happen on a road course like The Glen. This was the eighth career start on a road course. He has finished sixth or better in seven of them. Plus, the Australian-born driver has finished third or better in all four of his starts at Watkins Glen.
Polesitter Kyle Busch, who led the most laps in the race with 49 and lost the lead on the restart on the next to last of the 92 laps around the 3.40-mile Watkins Glen road-course layout, finished third Monday. He may have fallen short in trying for what would have been a NASCAR-best fourth Sprint Cup victory of the season, but the third-place finish at Watkins Glen pulled the younger Busch into a tie with Edwards in the Chase for the Cup standings with just five more races left in the regular season.
Busch was followed across the line Monday by Martin Truex Jr and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano. For both Truex and Logano, it was their best career finish in a road-course race
"I've fought so much to get here, to finally win and be here in Victory Lane is a dream come true," Ambrose said after Monday's race. "I spoke with Brad Keselowski (Sunday night). We had a chat for about a half-hour, just shooting the breeze and talking about how hard it is to get to Victory Lane - and there I was racing him for the win."
The last time NASCAR had as many as five first-time winners in the Cup Series was in 2002, with some names that will sound very familiar to you now: Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Johnny Benson Jr. Interestingly, four of the five first-time winners this season have done so in events that ended in a green-white-checkered finish.
Bowyer currently is in 11th place in the drivers' standings, 25 points back of tenth-place Tony Stewart and 36 behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. The problem is, the first 10 drivers in the standings after 26 races (just five more than where we are now) automatically qualify for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Two more drivers from 11 through 20 in the standings can qualify as wild-card participants in the Chase, but that is determined by the most season wins.
Bowyer has no wins in his pocket through the 21 Cup races thus far. Keselowski, 14th in the standings currently, has two wins this year and two others (Paul Menard and Denny Hamlin) in the second ten have one each, so they would rank ahead of Bowyer, despite the points, in determining the two wild-card entrees.
The Pure Michigan 400 on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway is next up on the Sprint Cup schedule. With just five races to go in the race for the Chase, things should get even more heated on the track in a season that has already seen five first-time winners.