Marcos Ambrose puts it in perspective
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Ryan Doyle is one of the most adorable 6-year-olds you'll ever meet, his twin sister, Kaia, aside. He's a talker, too, and at the moment he is staring into the eyes of a kneeling Marcos Ambrose and letting the Australian-born Sprint Cup driver know why he has to win on Sunday at Infineon Raceway.
"So the kids won't get sick anymore," Ryan said.
Ryan has cancer.
So do a lot of the kids who gathered on Thursday to meet Ambrose and his No. 9 crew underneath a large tent outside the Children's Hospital and Research Center in Oakland. Four of them, including Ryan, are shadowing Ambrose and his race team this weekend at nearby Infineon Raceway, hoping the driver can finish what he started a year ago.
If Ambrose does, primary sponsor Stanley will donate $1 million through the Ace Hardware Foundation to benefit children's hospitals such as this across the country.
"He was this close before he lost last year," said Ryan, holding his right index finger and thumb less than a quarter of an inch apart as Ambrose had a few minutes earlier when explaining what happened. "Then he made a mistake."
Yep, a mistake -- at least that's the word Ambrose chose with Ryan and the other kids on this sun-splashed day. Ryan didn't know what the mistake was. He didn't care, even after being told what it was. He just wants to see Ambrose not make one this time.
"He's got to beat the other cars for the kids," Ryan said.
Ambrose had the field covered a year ago until he made what will rank among the biggest gaffes in the history of the sport.
In case you forgot -- and Ambrose would if people stopped reminding him -- the then-JTG Daugherty Racing driver cut off his engine under caution trying to conserve gas with about six laps remaining.
Unfortunately, he was on a slight hill and the engine stalled when he tried to restart it. The car eventually came to a stop, allowing eventual winner Jimmie Johnson and six others to pass. Ambrose tried to reclaim his position before the restart, not understanding just how big a mistake he'd made, but NASCAR ordered him back to seventh because he failed to match the speed of the pace car.
He finished sixth.
At least then Ambrose wasn't with Stanley, which would have added insult to injury had he blown the $1 million donation. The pressure then was on Elliott Sadler, who really wasn't under any pressure at all. Nothing against Sadler, but he's not half the road course racer Ambrose is. Few are.
Ambrose arguably is the best road course driver in NASCAR today. He has won twice on road courses in the Nationwide Series, and might have won two others had he not been spun by Robby Gordon while leading late at Montreal in 2007 and been passed by Carl Edwards in the final turn there a year ago.
In six Cup races on road courses, Ambrose has four top-3 finishes -- a third at Infineon two years ago and a third, second and third at Watkins Glen. Were it not for the "mistake" here a year ago, he would have five.
Putting $1 million on the Richard Petty Motorsports driver to win on Sunday is as sure of a bet as one can make, and arguably it would be a better feel-good story than a win by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is trying to snap a three-year losing streak.
"We're certainly excited knowing his history," said Sarah Waters, the vice president of corporate development for the Children's Miracle Network, as she watched smiling kids huddle around Ambrose.
Ambrose is excited, too, but not because he wants to atone for last year. He just feels more comfortable on road courses, where he had most of his experience before turning to NASCAR in 2006 with three consecutive titles in Australia's V8 Supercar series.
"I've lost no sleep on it," Ambrose said of last year's debacle.
Believe him. While a high-strung driver like Kyle Busch might have kicked himself for months after making such a monumental mistake, Ambrose put it behind him almost as fast as it happened. There certainly were no signs of regret on Thursday as Ambrose's contagious smile brightened the day of these kids, many with IVs in their arms and tubes in their noses, as much as they brightened his.
Ambrose had everyone laughing hysterically as he filled the dunking booth with four bags of ice just before front tire carrier Jack Coronel went for a swim.
"Hold your hands up, mate," he said of Coronel, still shivering.
Ambrose was as laid-back as one could get, jokingly telling one child in a wheelchair, "You just ran over my foot."
Hey, everyone makes mistakes.
Even Johnson, the five-time defending Cup champion, does. Remember, he fell off the top of a golf cart and broke his wrist before the 2006 season. He spun out without anybody's help last weekend at Michigan and finished 27th with a car capable of winning.
"I screwed up plenty of times and lost wins in the final laps, but not due to shutting the car off and not being able to get it started back up," Johnson said.
OK, there is that.
But make no mistake -- watching these kids laugh and have a good time, knowing what many are going through, puts everything into perspective. What happened to Ambrose wasn't life and death like many of them face.
"I've got two healthy young kids at home," said Ambrose, who has two daughters. "It's days like this that you appreciate how lucky you are. There are families that are not as fortunate."
Ambrose was reminded of that at every turn on Thursday. He'll be reminded of it on every one of Infineon's 10 turns because the names, ages and illnesses of many of the kids he met are embedded into his paint scheme.
Right beside the No. 9 on the passenger door are the names of the four who will be with him all weekend:
• Noah Vieira from California, age 13, cancer.
• Amanda de la Cueva from California, 9, cancer.
• Riktor Phillips from California, 7, cancer.
• Ryan Doyle from California, 6, cancer.
If that doesn't give Ambrose extra incentive when he climbs into the car, nothing will.
"Yeah, there is pressure and people have expectations of performance ...'' Ambrose said.
But the million dollars isn't the only incentive Ambrose has to win. He's 21st in points, seven behind Martin Truex Jr. for a top-20 spot necessary to be eligible for one of two wild-card spots in the Chase.
A win would make Ambrose the only driver ranked 11th through 20th with a trip to Victory Lane -- other than Jeff Gordon -- which is the other requirement to be eligible for the wild card. Gordon leads the way at Infineon with five wins.
With Watkins Glen still ahead, Ambrose could put himself in solid Chase contention.
"That's what we're looking at," said crew chief Todd Parrott, who like Ambrose and the rest of his crew had a No. 9 painted on his left cheek.
These heavy stock cars, the way they move around and the road course component of it, just really suits me. I try to take advantage of it when I can. If there were 20 road races out there, I might be Jimmie Johnson.” -- Marcos Ambrose
This is Ambrose's time of the year. Ambrose knows it. Parrott knows it. Everyone in the Cup garage knows it.
"These heavy stock cars, the way they move around and the road course component of it, just really suits me," Ambrose said. "I try to take advantage of it when I can. If there were 20 road races out there, I might be Jimmie Johnson."
He's not kidding.
"I would say he's really, really, really good on road courses," Parrott said.
And, yes, Parrott has reminded Ambrose of what happened a year ago.
"We've had several conversations about the strategies and things we're going to do this weekend," he said. "We've done a lot of testing all winter long leading up to this race. If we just go out and do what we've been doing and have fun, everything will take care of itself."
So if you're feeling sorry for Ambrose for what happened last year, as Johnson said he was after the race, don't. These kids certainly don't.
"They don't care about anything but now," Ambrose said. "They are really brave and an inspiration for all of us. A lot of good sentiment out here. It's days like today that we can help them forget about all that's going on around them and give them a touch of NASCAR and sunshine on the day.
"It's a good day to get grounded, to realize racing is great but life moves on no matter what is thrown at you."
It was all that, but Ryan Doyle still wants a win.
There are a million reasons.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.