With just eight laps to go in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350, Ambrose was cruising toward the first victory of his Cup career in this, the race he'd banked his entire season on. He'd survived an early charge by Johnson that saw the four-time champion looking unbeatable. He'd avoided the wrecks that took out the likes of Kyle Busch. And even when a late caution flew with just a handful of laps to go, Ambrose had no reason to worry. He was faster than everyone else, and he knew it.
Then, in an effort to save fuel in case the race stretched beyond its intended 110 laps, Ambrose shut off his engine, inexplicably as he drove uphill behind the pace car. When he went to start it again, it wouldn't fire. And so he sat there, stalled on the track. By the time he finally got it started, six drivers had passed him, including Johnson.
Still, Ambrose thought he'd be allowed to retake his position at the front of the line. After all, Greg Biffle had done something similar a few years back at Kansas when, under caution, he slowed on the track as his fuel ran low, had three cars pass him, crossed the finish line fourth and still NASCAR awarded him the victory.
So when Ambrose smashed the gas and steered his way ahead of Johnson with the race still under caution, he didn't think anything of it. But NASCAR did. They told him to stop, back it up and merge in behind Kasey Kahne in seventh.
With that, victory was no longer an option. Ambrose was to make up only one spot over the final five green-flag laps, while Johnson cruised home with his first career road-course win.
"It's disappointing," Ambrose said as he walked through the garage, "but like I said, it's NASCAR's house. They call the shots."
NASCAR's call was that Ambrose stopped on the track and didn't blend back in until he was passed by Kahne.
"I don't know what happened," said John Darby, NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series director. "I don't know if his car quit. I don't know if he shut it off. I don't know what happened. But what I do know is that he was leading, he pulled over, stopped, then blended back in behind the 9 [Kahne], and at that point that's where he is."
In contrast, Darby said, Biffle was still rolling in the 2007 race at Kansas.
"The two behind cars sped up," Darby explained. "Biffle maintained pace, the other cars picked up 20 miles an hour."
That's not entirely accurate. Biffle did slow down in 2007, and when he did the two trailing drivers passed him. However, they don't appear to have sped up 20 mph, as Darby said.
That said, NASCAR got it right in both instances. The rule doesn't state a driver must maintain speed with the pace car; it says drivers must maintain a "reasonable speed." Yes, the rule allows for some wriggle room, which is why NASCAR can make a legitimate case in favor of Biffle winning.
Ambrose, on the other hand, clearly didn't maintain a reasonable speed. While he insisted afterward that he didn't come to a complete stop, if he was moving it was only barely.
After speaking with Darby, Ambrose's crew chief Frank Kerr still questioned the call, saying drivers aren't penalized when they stop on the track to adjust their steering wheel.
"I asked if it's OK if you get pushed around; I'm not really sure what the difference is," Kerr said. "Depends on who you are, I guess.
When asked how disappointing the ending was, Kerr replied, "God, I wish I had a liquor sponsor."
The harsh reality is that Ambrose has only himself to blame. He didn't necessarily need to save fuel – Johnson's last fuel stop actually had come a lap before Ambrose's – and even if Ambrose felt he needed to save gas, the prevailing theory is that you don't go into fuel conservation mode while going uphill.
"Normally guys shut the car off downhill coasting to save fuel," said Johnson, who dominated the early portion of the race, leading the first 33 laps. "I didn't think at first that he had shut the car off going up the hill. That's just the last place you would probably do it. So I thought maybe he ran out of fuel or had an electrical problem, you know, something major, because the car just came to a stop. I'm like, 'Wow.' "
For Johnson, the win moved him ahead of Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett into sole possession of 10th on NASCAR's all-time wins list. It also gave him the road-course win that, along with his first win at Bristol earlier this season, rounds out his already extensive resumé.
For Ambrose, it was nothing less than a heartbreak. Four years ago he left his native Australia for the challenge of NASCAR. With no guarantee of a full-time ride and the high probability that he'd never achieve the same degree of success that he had in his homeland, the perpetually smiling Ambrose has made a nice showing for himself in America. He finished a surprising 18th in the standings last season, his first as a Cup driver, and had some believing he could challenge for a spot in the Chase this season.
But that hasn't happened. His sophomore campaign has been a nightmare, with only two top-10 finishes and a series-high (among full-time drivers) six DNFs. That is why he'd put so much emphasis on this race – at a road course, where he's supposed to shine.
For 102 laps, he did. Then he messed up, which wouldn't be so awful if he knew he'd get another opportunity like this one. Sadly, though, he may not.