NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
After the fender-clanging show that Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski put on last Sunday at Watkins Glen International, the two drivers could be forgiven if they needed to take a deep breath. With the cut-off point for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup bearing down on the field, neither one can afford a let-up.
Ambrose and Keselowski will have extra incentive -- if not similar motives -- to score a win in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Michigan International Speedway, a track where both drivers have had more than a small dose of success.
Ambrose, the charismatic Aussie who prevailed over Keselowski in a classic lead-swapping finish at the Glen, has turned his lone victory this season into an opportunity to inject his name into the Chase wild-card hunt. Two wild-card berths for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series postseason are available for drivers ranked 11th to 20th in the season standings with the most victories.
Another win, which would be Ambrose's first on an oval track, would significantly elevate the Richard Petty Motorsports driver in the Chase pecking order with four races left in the so-called regular season. He's already shown speed at Michigan, setting a record at a staggering 203.241 mph to win the pole on the track's new pavement in June.
But four other drivers -- Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano -- are in the same situation as Ambrose, all clinging to one victory but needing more to secure their fate.
"It's exciting for us to be in this position," Ambrose said. "After the lead-up to Watkins Glen was, 'OK, we're in striking distance, but we need to make some strikes.' Definitely winning at Watkins Glen helped us get some momentum and definitely gets us closer to where we want to be, but there's a lot of work to be done yet."
For Keselowski, the motives are different. The runner-up finish at the Glen elevated the Penske Racing driver two spots to fifth place in the Sprint Cup standings, firming up his chances of qualifying for the Chase as one of the top 10 drivers after the regular season.
Even if Keselowski somehow doesn't qualify through the top 10, he's virtually assured of a wild-card berth based off his three wins this season, but another victory would help him pad his bonus points tally when the standings are reset for the 10-race playoffs.
The other incentive for Keselowski is the opportunity to savor a win in his home state. The Rochester Hills, Mich., native has won twice before at the 2-mile oval in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, but he has just one top-five finish there in six Sprint Cup starts, including a subpar 13th in June.
"I definitely think we were better than a 13th-place car," Keselowski said. "I'm confident that we will have the necessary speed to contend for the win this weekend. A Cup series win at Michigan would be a big deal for me and my family."
The top four drivers in the Sprint Cup standings, including new points leader Jimmie Johnson, can mathematically secure their Chase berths this weekend.
NATIONWIDE, NORTH OF THE BORDER
Alex Tagliani hasn't exactly made himself at home in stock cars, only because he has just three NASCAR Nationwide Series starts to his credit. This weekend, the 39-year-old Montreal native will be right at home in his backyard.
Tagliani figures to have a huge rooting section in Saturday's NAPA 200 (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) as the Nationwide tour makes its sixth-ever stop at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.
Tagliani, who will doing double-duty in the Grand-Am sports car race earlier in the day, finished second in the series' only race outside the United States last season, driving for Roger Penske. This year, Tagliani -- one of nine Canadian drivers entered in the event -- has paired up to drive for Turner Motorsports, hoping to improve one spot on last season's results and hoping for more opportunities in full-fendered cars.
"I would like to do many more NASCAR races," Tagliani said Thursday at a welcome ceremony at Montreal's historic city hall. "It's tough to get in and compete against guys who are doing it regularly, but there's no question that I'm trying to get a good relationship with Turner Motorsports. I love the group. They're very passionate and it's going to be hard to say goodbye at the end of the weekend."
Justin Allgaier, Tagliani's teammate for the weekend, says the Canadian star has been a plus for the whole Turner operation.
"To have his ability and to have his ties here to Montreal, it's going to be a fun weekend," Allgaier said. "I've only gotten to know him for a short amount of time, but hopefully it's the first of many races that he's able to run with us on the NASCAR side."
The 15-turn, 2.709-mile road course may be familiar to native Canadians, but its close-quarters nature could become a trouble spot for the series' regulars. The Gilles Villeneuve track has a history of producing bent sheet metal and heated contests up front -- three of the five previous races have included a winning pass for the lead in the final two laps.
Elliott Sadler remains on top of the Nationwide standings, but the gap separating the top four tightened after last weekend at Watkins Glen. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the defending series champ, is 13 points behind in second, followed by Sam Hornish Jr. (24 points back) and Austin Dillon (29 points back).
KLIGERMAN IN RED HORSE FOLD FOR MICHIGAN
Parker Kligerman holds a modest streak of three straight top-10 finishes in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. But what's been a fairly steady season for him had a fairly significant shake-up earlier this week.
Kligerman, who drove the season's first 11 races for Brad Keselowski Racing, will be behind the wheel of the No. 7 Red Horse Racing Toyota for Saturday's VFW 200 (12:30 p.m. ET, SPEED) at Michigan International Speedway. The dramatic change suddenly partners the Connecticut native with points leader Timothy Peters and two-time series champ Todd Bodine.
Though Kligerman ranks sixth in series points, he's still an outside threat for the championship, ranking just 35 points behind new teammate Peters. Now that he's established with a team that has put all three of its trucks in Victory Lane at some point this season, Kligerman said the time for him to shine is now.
"When you look at truck series teams right now, there's no doubt Red Horse Racing is definitely one of the top organizations," said Kligerman, who will also fill in for Sam Hornish Jr. during Sprint Cup practice in the No. 22 Dodge for Penske Racing; Hornish will fly back and forth between the Brooklyn, Mich., track and Montreal to continue his quest for a Nationwide title.
"I'm really excited to make the move here with the support of Tom DeLoach and everyone at this team to see how we can help the team and be successful," Kligerman added. "I feel like Red Horse gives you the best equipment they can and at the end of the day that's all you look for as a driver; the actual chance to win, not just the trophy."
Peters' grasp on the series lead took a hit at the tour's last race at Pocono Raceway, where a crash-related 22nd-place finish lopped 15 points off his advantage. Peters heads to the fast 2-mile track in the Irish Hills of Michigan with just an eight-point edge over top rookie Ty Dillon.
James Buescher, the only driver with multiple truck wins this season, ranks third, just 15 points off the top spot.