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Watkins Glen Preview: Ambrose seeks three-peat

The SportsXchange

NASCAR Wire Service

Distributed by The Sports Xchange

It was a final lap that no one watching will ever forget.

It was a two-driver showdown battle for the checkered flag that some said was one of the best in NASCAR history.

It was one of the brightest highlights of the 2012 season.

And in the end, Marcos Ambrose stood victorious over Brad Keselowski, who would go on to capture his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship at season's end.

Ambrose's win last year at Watkins Glen was one that will go down in the annals of NASCAR lore as one of the most exciting, but it also gave the Australian driver back-to-back victories at the 2.45-mile road course. This Sunday in the Cheez-it 355 at The Glen (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) he'll be looking to become only the third driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to post three consecutive wins at the pastoral track nestled in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York.

Mark Martin first accomplished the three-peat in 1995 after winning the 1993 and 1994 races, as well. Jeff Gordon matched Martin's record four years later when he won his third straight race at The Glen in 1999.

"Obviously, we feel like we are contenders each time we go to Watkins Glen, and this weekend is no different," Ambrose said.

In the 2011 race, Ambrose passed Keselowski with two laps to go and then battled it out over the final two laps. On the final lap, a yellow flag came out when David Ragan got loose and hit the inside wall only to rebound across the lap where he slammed David Reutimann into the outside wall. When the flag was displayed, effectively ending the race, Ambrose held a couple car-length lead over Keselowski.

The win was Ambrose's first in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since joining the series fulltime in 2009.

His second victory came the following season at the same venue in what was a hold-on-to-your-hat last-lap face-off between the same two drivers who battled it out the previous year.

Kyle Busch entered the final lap of the 2012 edition with a slim margin over Keselowski and Ambrose. But midway through the last circuit Busch spun out and Keselowski grabbed the lead with Ambrose following closely in hot pursuit. Going into one of the final turns, Ambrose went wide and was able to slingshot past Keselowski for the win by a margin of 0.571 seconds.

"Last year was a really great finish. It was stressful, but a lot of fun to battle against Kyle and Brad the last few laps for the win," said Ambrose, who will once again be piloting the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford.

A third win in a row at The Glen would do wonders for Ambrose's chances of making the postseason, or at least putting him in contention for a Wild Card spot. In the first 21 races, he's posted only two top-10 finishes; however, one of them was a seventh at Sonoma, which hosts the only other road-course event on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule. He also finished eighth at Martinsville.

He currently sits 22nd in the standings, only five markers behind Jeff Burton in 20th. In order to be eligible to claim one of the two Wild Card spots, Ambrose would need to enter the top 20 in points and capture at least one win, if not two. In addition, he would have to pass three drivers (Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman) currently ranked between 11th and 20th in the standings with one win, which might be a tall order considering there are only five races remaining before the Chase field is set at Richmond. Ambrose, therefore, would also have to add an oval victory to his season stats - something he has never done in his NASCAR Sprint Cup career.

Stewart, however, will miss Sunday's race after breaking his leg Monday night during a sprint car race at Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa. Stewart's missed race could provide an opening for Ambrose if he wins at The Glen. If a win does move him into the top 20 and in front of Stewart, Ambrose would still need to find a way to pass Truex and Newman in the standings, or else find a second win in the final four races before the Chase begins. Both options will be steep uphill battles.

"We have had a tough season this year, but this race can very quickly turn it around and put us in contention for a Wild Card berth in the Chase," Ambrose said. "That's what our goal is right now."

For those who might question whether Ambrose can realistically put together a three-peat at Watkins Glen, it's definitely a possibility as he's already done it once. From 2008-2010, he posted back-to-back-to-back victories at the road course while driving for JTG/Daugherty Racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

Chase-Clinching Scenarios: Jimmie Johnson is the only driver this weekend with a mathematical possibility of clinching a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. If Johnson leaves The Glen with a 193-point lead over the 11th-place driver, he will reserve his spot in the postseason. Currently, he holds a 178-point lead over 11th. With a win at Watkins Glen, Johnson can also guarantee at least a Wild Card berth in the Chase.

ALLGAIER HAS SOMETHING THEY ALL WANT

The prognosticators can predict who they think might win Saturday's Zippo 200 (2 p.m. ET, ABC) at Watkins Glen all they want, but the truth of the matter is that no one knows.

That's because no driver currently entered in the race has ever won a NASCAR Nationwide Series event at The Glen.

Furthermore, only one driver currently ranked in the top 10 in the standings has ever won a series event on a road course. That driver is Justin Allgaier, who bested the field last August at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal to narrowly beat Sam Hornish Jr. to the finish line.

A win at The Glen would cap off a life-changing week for Allgaier, who Thursday morning announced on Twitter that his wife Ashley had given birth to their daughter, Harper Grace. The baby girl is the couple's first child.

It's a quick turn-around from new-father to championship contender. In two short days, Allgaier goes from the hospital to the race track, attempting to nab a second road-course victory.

That one road-course win (and a string of five top-10 road-course finishes) might work in Allgaier's favor this weekend, although, he hasn't had a great deal of luck in his four starts at The Glen.

"I don't have the best results at Watkins Glen, but my team at Turner Scott Motorsports has prepared a great chassis, and I think we have a great chance to win," Allgaier said.

His only top 10 at the 2.45-mile track came in last year's race when he finished ninth. His other three finishes are 17th, 34th and 12th.

In the first road-course event of the season at Road America, back in July, Allgaier posted a runner-up performance. In the 2012 race at Road America, he finished a respectable 10th.

He has placed in the top 10 in each of the last five road-course races with an average finish of 6.0 in those events.

If Allgaier is able to continue his recent road-course success through the next two races - the NASCAR Nationwide Series makes its inaugural visit to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course next Saturday - there is no reason to doubt that he'd be right in the middle of the championship conversation.

The Riverton, Ill., native is currently seventh in the standings, 50 markers behind points leader Austin Dillon. In 20 races this season, Allgaier has three top-five and 10 top-10 finishes, and has been running at the finish of every race. Earlier this season, he had a stretch of 11 consecutive races (Talladega through Chicagoland) where he finished in the top 15.

In 19 NASCAR Nationwide Series races in Watkins Glen, N.Y., 11 different drivers have made celebratory visits to Victory Lane. This Saturday a 12th driver will be added to that list.
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