USA TODAY – WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Watkins Glen International’s frontstretch grandstands erupted with approval as fans watched favorite villain Kyle Busch spin from the lead on the white-flag lap of Sunday’s Finger Lakes 355.
Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski did their part to make sure they stayed on their feet.
Ambrose emerged victorious in a riveting duel to the checkered flag that had both cars skidding around the track, through grass and, ultimately, repeating their 1-2 finish in this Sprint Cup race a year ago.
With every twist and turn of the 2.45-mile circuit visible on big screens, fans roared during the last-lap theatre that ended with Ambrose making two final saves of his No. 9 Ford around two final turns before a dramatic drag race to the finish line. Even the runner-up was applauding.
“We were both cool about it and didn’t dump each other,” Keselowski said. “This is what I think racing in NASCAR is supposed to be — hard-nosed, going for the win, bumping and rubbing, without any of that intentional wrecking nonsense. Marcos gets that.”
Busch, who led 43 laps, wasn’t quite as thrilled with the outcome. “I’ve got nothing good to say,” Busch said in his only comment to reporters.
Crew chief Dave Rogers said Busch’s No. 18 Toyota slowed after running through leaked oil from Bobby Labonte’s No. 47. Busch went through the runoff in Turn 1, and by the time he returned to the racetrack Keselowski was on his bumper and spun him, setting the stage for the duel.
“We knew (Labonte) blew a motor, and instead of getting off the racetrack like he should have, he tried to stay out there and run the extra two laps,” Rogers said. “And when he did, he ran right through the (racing) groove.”
Ambrose, who has finished third or better in his last eight NASCAR races at Watkins Glen (Nationwide and Cup), was more than happy to take advantage for his second career Cup win.
“We had a fast car. We were in position to take advantage when it went crazy,” Ambrose said. “We got the win. We didn’t luck into it. We deserved to get this win. We’ll take it.”
Jimmie Johnson finished a distant third, replacing Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. (28th after a late spin) as the points leader. Sonoma winner Clint Bowyer was fourth and Sam Hornish Jr. fifth, his best Cup finish since 2009.
Sunday’s outcome enriches the focus on the Chase for the Sprint Cup cutoff that’s coming in four weeks.
Ambrose joined a group of five one-win drivers that are vying for one of two wild-card spots awarded to the winningest drivers ranked 11th through 20th. The top 10 in points and 11th-place Kasey Kahne (two wins) are in good shape, but Ryan Newman, Busch and Jeff Gordon are separated by 10 points for the second wild card.
That Busch, who said Saturday he was taking a “win-or-bust” mentality into the Chase run-up, finished seventh was some solace to Gordon (21st). A second win for Busch would have meant an uphill climb for Gordon and other one-win drivers. “Yeah, that would have impacted it in a big way,” Gordon conceded.
Ambrose showed Sunday he can’t be dismissed. Though he is 44 points behind Newman for the second wild card, he carries momentum into next week’s race at Michigan International Speedway— where he won the pole position in June.
“We were running top-five all day there,” Ambrose said. “No reason we can’t go there and surprise them again.”
By the time the Busch-Keselowski-Ambrose fireworks, several abig names fell out of contention. After a caution-free first 26 laps (of 90), the combination of Watkins Glen’s high speeds and harsh corners began to take their toll on myriad 3,400-pound machines.
Jamie McMurray, who started 10th, began the parade of problems when he blew a tire and slammed a guard rail to bring out the day’s first yellow flag. Under that caution, Kurt Busch— who had hoped to deliver a win for tiny Phoenix Racing after a third-place finish at Sonoma in June — spun and had a left-rear tire fly off his No. 51 Chevrolet.
Steering problems sent pole-sitter Juan Pablo Montoya to the garage, yet another disappointing result for the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver.
“I did think we had a car to win today,” Montoya said.
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Joey Logano (broken shock mount; 32nd) and Denny Hamlin (engine failure on lap 58; 34th) also succumbed to equipment issues.
The results put both in more tenuous positions going forward. Logano fell 57 points out of the second wild card, meaning his only path to the Chase is a second win. And Hamlin dipped to 10th in points, though his two wins should still be a safeguard for Chase entry.