As December nears it is natural to look back at the last twelve months and contemplate what has happened, and when you are a racing fan, that means thinking of the racing of the previous season.
Part of this is looking at the best, most surprising, and indeed worst drivers of a series, and for NASCAR’s premier the choice (or at least my choice) for at least one of the first two categories may be a little different from the norm.
‘Who is it?’ I hear you ask, presuming you haven’t read the big, bold title atop this post.
Could it be Jimmie Johnson – man of four titles – Mark Martin – who made a triumphant return to full time competition – or even Joey Logano or David Reutimann who both took maiden wins this year.
It’s Marcos Ambrose.
Of course, the fact I’m an Ambrose fan makes be biased, having followed him since V8 Supercars coverage landed in the UK (or at least my consciousness) just as the Tasmanian was on the upswing that would see him clinch back-to-back titles in the series. The fact that Ambrose’s debut in the Cup Series coincided with Dave Blaney’s fall from racer to embarrasing running joke (actually the fact he wasn’t running was the joke) made the switch all the easier.
2009 was Marcos’ rookie season in the Cup Series, though after making a handful of starts in 2008 he was ineligible for the rookie of the year award, though he still had the yellow ‘rookie stripe’ on his car, a sign that only seems to warn those around you of your presence, or that NASCAR will turn a blind eye if they help you into a wall (unless of course you’re Juan Montoya, in which case you will probably be told to pick on someone your own size).
But compared to those who were rookies according to the rules, and Marcos spent much of the season beating them, even with Logano’s fluke rain-win at Loudon in the summer. His tally of 3830 points put him 18th overall at season’s end, with four top-fives and seven top-tens, dwarfing many of the more established drivers running for the more established teams than the Michael Waltrip Racing outfit that was behind Ambrose’s no.47 Camry.
Not only is Ambrose excelling himself on the tours pair of road courses, venues you would expect him to perform well at given his racing pedigree. He finished second at Watkins Glen and third at Sonoma, a race he could easily have won had he not had a blown engine move him from a third place start to the back of the field.
But has started to show promise on ovals. His races in Bristol, Dover and the late season showings at Texas and Homestead illustrating that he has more than found his comfort level in oval races. It is starting to reach that crucial point in the minds of fans and commentators when it is no longer a surprise when he makes an appearance in the top ten.
As the only other non-American full time in the series, it is easy to make a comparison to make a comparison.
So that’s what I’m going to do.
Both men landed in NASCAR in 2006, both running limited schedules (though Montoya’s was far more limited), Ambrose in the Truck Series, Montoya moving more-or-less straight into the Cup Series.
That perhaps is the big difference between the paths of the two, Montoya has often seemed to struggle to adapt in the Cup series, a handicap he is only now starting to overcome, while Ambrose has patiently made his way up the NASCAR series, from Trucks in 2006, the Nationwide series in 2007 and 2008.
That gradual acclimatisation may be what sees Ambrose pushing Montoya for the honour of being the first of the recent incomers to win on an oval, something you would have expected to be solely Montoya’s to chase before this season began.
And given Montoya’s position in the Chase, a rookie rivalling him for anything shows just how far Marcos Ambrose has come.