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2014 could be a make-or-break year for Marcos Ambrose and Richard Petty Motorsports
After improving steadily for three seasons — on the track and in the points standings — Marcos Ambrose still wasn’t much of a week-to-week contender for NASCAR’s Chase in 2013. But a distinct ability to win on road courses, combined with the occasional oval-track success, always kept the Chase door slightly open for him to make it in as a wild card entrant when the payoffs were a 12-driver affair.
Alas, the streak of improvement unraveled with a nightmare year in 2013. Ambrose failed to win a third straight Cup race at Watkins Glen, the site of his lone premier series triumphs. Even worse, he failed to notch a top-5 finish anywhere (road course or oval) for the first time in his Cup career. That meant Ambrose wasn’t in the hunt for an outside Chase berth down the stretch. In fact, he wasn’t even close.
Amid a deep pool of impressive young drivers working their way up the ranks, improved results for Ambrose might be necessary for the former Australian V8 Supercars champion to stay with Richard Petty Motorsports for a fifth season in 2015. That’s if he even wants to stay; the last two years, rumors have run rampant that Ambrose has given serious thought to returning to Australia, where Ford would put him in a top-tier ride, before choosing to remain in the States.
Either way, the No. 9 seat is a year-to-year deal. That leaves Ambrose vulnerable if the youth movement now beginning in the sport’s top level continues to take shape. It’s a demographic the 37-year-old Ambrose is no longer a part of. Instead, his seat happens to be a perfect landing spot should Ford or RPM — now with three development drivers under its umbrella after Dakoda Armstrong joined Corey Lajoie and Ryan Truex late in the 2013 season — decide a new driver in its portfolio is more deserving of a Sprint Cup opportunity.
But those are all “what-ifs” for now. What can we legitimately expect from Ambrose in 2014?
Well, 18th-26th-place ranking over the last five years doesn’t exactly exude confidence. Nor does his alliance with the manufacturer that struggled the most in 2013.
Overall race speed for RPM was a problem last season. Between Ambrose and teammate Aric Almirola, the organization led a total of just 82 laps. Ambrose’s average running position also dropped 2.6 spots, to 19.5, illustrating a sustained drop of pace. Even hiring crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, a former Roush wrench who led Matt Kenseth to the 2009 Daytona 500, hasn’t put RPM equipment in sync.
The introduction of the Gen-6 chassis may be partly to blame, but the distinct struggles of most Ford teams last year played a big role, too. RPM operates in conjunction with Roush Fenway Racing, the kingpin of a Blue Oval hierarchy. However, there are many drivers — like Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano — who simply get the fruits of improvement from a manufacturer before RPM. Such is life on the NASCAR totem pole, where this organization’s two-car tandem is sixth and seventh in line, respectively.
Will info trickle down to Ambrose and make an impact beyond the road courses? Eh. A future trip back Down Under seems more likely.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
Marcos Ambrose has developed the reputation of being a one-hit wonder — as in, only hitting it out of the park on one type of track.
“His strength is obviously road courses,” one competitor notes. “Most of those guys with that background, whether it is Juan Pablo Montoya or Marcos, shine at those tracks, but there are typically only two of them a year. His positives are definitely the road courses.”
We’re not breaking any news with that assessment. But one area of his performance that seems to have taken a dip is on the intermediate tracks.
“I think the program at RPM isn’t doing him any favors in that respect,” a media member says. “There is a hierarchy in any program, and Ford Racing’s priorities are with Roush and Penske. Plus, Ambrose is all RPM can afford. He seemed most successful on the ovals with Todd Parrott atop his box, and that’s gone now.”
“He needs to work on the ovals,” says another crew chief. “He seems to either be in contention or completely out to lunch. He needs to find a balance where they’re able to score decent points every race on ovals instead of being so inconsistent.”
No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford
Sponsors: DeWalt/Stanley Tools/Twisted Tea
Owners: Andy Murstein/Doug Bergeron/Richard Petty
Crew Chief: Drew Blickensderfer
Years with current team: 4
Under contract through: 2014
Best points finish: 18th (2009, ’12)
Hometown: Launceston, Australia
Born: Sept. 1, 1976
Top photo courtesy of NASCAR; Ambrose courtesy by Action Sports, Inc.
For complete Speedweeks coverage, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro