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Previews, predictions and stats for Marcos Ambrose and the No. 9 team
It took until October of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season for Marcos Ambrose to know fully, one way or the other, whether he should make plans for a prolonged trip to Daytona in February with Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 9 team.
There were rumors that he could switch NASCAR teams based on engine decisions made by RPM executives, and there were even published reports in Australia that the Tasmanian driver could return to that continent’s V8 Supercars to lead Ford’s latest charge at success in the sedan-based road racing series. (Ambrose made his name by delivering Ford back-to-back championships in the series in 2003 and ’04.) The manufacturer has been in his back pocket ever since, opening doors along the way in his desire to succeed in NASCAR.
But Ambrose, 36, opted to return, giving American stock cars a final chance as he continues to drive for one of the sport’s few “middle-class” organizations. His one-year deal matches that of teammate Aric Almirola, the brevity of the contracts a way of life for RPM, which competes against wallets that get progressively fatter at the top. Even with investor support from taxi magnate Andrew Murstein and others, RPM remains afloat only through patchwork sponsorship.
Ambrose, though, goes to bat in his fifth full Cup Series season with at least one new weapon in the arsenal. Drew Blickensderfer, the crew chief credited with Matt Kenseth’s first Daytona 500 win, joined RPM late last season after a spell at Richard Childress Racing. As Ambrose’s team leader, Blickensderfer presents a key connection to the team’s chassis and engine supplier, armed with years of experience at Roush Fenway Racing. Knowledge of that organization could be key in learning how to make Ford equipment work for RPM.
Ambrose continues to show flashes of potential. In 2012, he set NASCAR’s fastest qualifying lap in 25 years — a blistering 203.241 mph at Michigan — and led at three 1.5-mile tracks.
And when it comes to road courses, RPM has one of the best: Ambrose’s Watkins Glen triumphs in 2011 and ’12 make him one of a dozen drivers to record wins in each of the last two seasons. Yet, this year should look a lot like 2012 with fits and starts along the way — par for the course for a team that just doesn’t have enough to get over the top.
After four full-time Cup seasons, with results ranging from 18th to 26th in points, some feel that Ambrose may have reached a permanent plateau. With Penske Racing’s switch to Ford from Dodge, his team also gets a smaller slice of manufacturer support — a killer in a world where technology reigns supreme. RPM must hope Ambrose can once again shoulder the load on road courses and use those victories to sneak into the Chase. Otherwise, this could be the year he sneaks back to the land Down Under…
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
“Marcos is one of those guys who is a truly versatile driver,” a garage insider says. “He’s the fastest man in the series on an intermediate track. He’s won on road courses and run really strong at Phoenix. Like everyone else he is trying to put the whole package together from A-to-Z. He’s definitely made a huge improvement from his first days here with JTG-Daugherty to where he is now with RPM.”
Internal changes at Richard Petty Motorsports may have hindered any gains Ambrose has made over the years — at least temporarily.
“They had a team swap two-thirds of the way through last season, trying to find some chemistry,” a crew chief says. “Unfortunately for Ambrose, this is a business, and race teams make decisions that they feel are best for the organization but might not be best for an individual. That move was probably more about making the 43 (Aric Almirola) better and not the 9, so Ambrose will just have to work with his new team to get back to where he was before the swap.”
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