NASCAR Wire Service, as distributed by The Sports XChange
Marcos Ambrose made an unofficial claim to being NASCAR's fastest man with his qualifying run at 203 mph-plus last weekend at Michigan. This weekend, he'd love to lay claim to being NASCAR's king of the road.
Ambrose's road-course expertise makes him a strong favorite when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to Sonoma's twisting layout for Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET, TNT).
A victory in California's wine country would make Ambrose the reigning champ on both road courses that host Sprint Cup events. The fifth-year driver prevailed at Watkins Glen, N.Y., last season for his first win in NASCAR's top series.
Although his road savvy often gives him a competitive edge, Ambrose shrugs off the notion he's a road-racing specialist. Three weeks of solid finishes have elevated him to 17th in points, and wins at Sonoma and Watkins Glen could place him in the wild-card picture for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs. To make his first postseason appearance, Ambrose knows he has to excel on ovals as well.
"I apply myself the same every week," Ambrose said. "The pressure is not much different, it's just the weight of expectation I guess this weekend and for Watkins Glen as well, the expectation of success is what we have to balance out. I can't change the way I drive. I've got to keep doing my best out there. If I do my job well and the team does, we know we'll be a contender for the race win."
Ambrose earned his road-racing pedigree while cutting his teeth in the V8 Supercars series in his homeland of Australia. After two titles in the series, his road prowess carried over to the United States. All four of his NASCAR Nationwide Series wins have come on road courses -- three at Watkins Glen and one at Montreal.
While Ambrose has enjoyed most of his success at the Glen, his resume is missing a NASCAR win at Sonoma, which has a much more confining layout.
"You have to take it by the scruff of the neck and force it to go around," Ambrose said. ". . . It's hard to get it around a tight, twisty road course. I guess the fact is that everybody is driving the same vehicles. No matter what they throw at you, you have to deal with it. This is one of the most challenging and rewarding racetracks we go to. I think all the drivers would tell you they love driving the cars around Sonoma, it's just really hard to race with all the competition."
The competition this weekend also includes a handful of road-course "ringers" making their first starts of the season -- Boris Said, Brian Simo and Tomy Drissi. Additionally, road expert Robby Gordon returns to the Sprint Cup Series, attempting to qualify for the first time since March at Auto Club Speedway.
Sonoma has been the picture of parity in recent years with seven different winners in the last seven events. But even though several Sprint Cup regulars have shown recent improvement at road racing, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson suggests all eyes are still on Ambrose.
"Marcos has amazing talent and a ton of experience in the closed-wheeled sedan cars with all the racing he did in Australia. He's just on it," said Johnson, who scored his lone Sonoma win in 2010. "The guy is going to be super fast once again. I think going in there, he's the guy we're all focused on beating."
SADLER PSYCHED FOR ROAD AMERICA
Elliott Sadler hasn't won on a road course in any of NASCAR's national series, but his confidence is sky-high heading to the sprawling circuit at Road America. The reason is all about stability.
Sadler carries the NASCAR Nationwide Series points lead into Saturday's Sargento 200 (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) as the series makes its only stop this season at the picturesque road course in Elkhart Lake, Wis. Sadler finished fourth there last year, but that isn't the only reason he's brimming with optimism.
"It says a lot for a driver's confidence when you're with a secure team," Sadler said of the Richard Childress Racing operation that fields his No. 2 Chevrolets. "There's a lot of stability there, you feel like you're racing week-to-week to get better and better and be part of a championship conversation."
Sadler has only raced on the 4.048-mile road course once. To prepare for the return trip, he's spent time watching the equivalent of game film in other sports -- the in-car footage from his car in last year's race.
"It's almost like studying for an exam going to a road course," Sadler said. "That's the way I approach it. So when I get there, my learning curve is as short as I can make it."
Sadler's return to the points lead has come at the expense of rival Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who opened the season with unmatched consistency but enters Road America with three straight finishes of 25th or worse. Stenhouse has three Nationwide victories this season, second only to Sprint Cup regular Joey Logano's five.
Stenhouse's slip has allowed Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Austin Dillon, Sadler's teammate at RCR, to move up to second in the series points. Dillon finished fifth last weekend at Michigan after winning his first career Nationwide pole; he now sits eight points back of Sadler while Stenhouse is 27 points off the championship lead.