- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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Earnhardt's 20-year quest to win the Daytona 500 became the stuff of legend: dominate all day to the point of fostering a foregone conclusion, only to wind up with a flat tire 10 laps from history. Earnhardt led every year, and lost NASCAR's biggest race in every way imaginable before finally breaking through in 1998.
Similarly, no driver has been more dominant at a single track in NASCAR over the past three seasons than Ambrose has been at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.
Three drivers have trophies after winning that race. Ambrose isn't one of them.
And while the two venues are completely different historically, and in terms of layout and prestige, the idea is the same. Racers will tell you no race track ever owes a driver anything, no matter how many times it tears his or her heart out. In the context of one-off setbacks, that's plausible. But when it happens time and again, it's nearly impossible to accept.
"I don't know why I can't close the deal there -- I think it's just the format of the races," Ambrose said Thursday. "There's a lot of cautions in every Montreal race we've had -- a bunch of cautions at the end.
"And there's only so many bullets you can dodge. I've always been the guy at the front, which seems to be a target. When you've got the ability to be the guy chasing it's a lot easier at the end of those races to get the win."
Pressure won the latest round.
Oftentimes when a guy screws up, the initial reaction is to point fingers elsewhere, even when he knows full-well those other three are pointing straight back at him. Happens every single day and in every conceivable context. It's the norm, not the exception.
Ambrose easily could've pointed fingers last weekend -- at NASCAR, possibly, for its decision to race on in the rain. Or at Carl Edwards, maybe, for a bonsai dash through the grass on the final restart. But he didn't. Ambrose manned up.
He had plenty of experience racing in the rain, after all. No excuse there. And he'd made a bonsai move of his own on Kyle Busch a few weeks before at The Glen. No excuse there, either.
It was a simple mistake -- one made in the final turn of the final lap of a race he'd utterly dominated. He'd led 60 laps, but circumstance foiled the effort, just as it had the last time around. And the time before that. In 2007 he led the most laps in Montreal, but was spun by Robby Gordon late in the race. Last year he got caught speeding on pit road. This time around it was caution after caution. Rain drops and wrecks.
It all came down to a two-lap sprint. The pressure won.
"It was just the result of really hard racing," he said Thursday. "I was really in a bad spot, because I had everything to lose. I was running at the front, and didn't know what to expect. All Carl had to do was brake a little later than I was, so I was real conservative on the last lap to make sure I didn't make a mistake.
"And then, Carl just got too close out of the hairpin and got me off position. Then I was on the defensive. Basically, he put me under pressure and I made a late brake move to make sure he stayed behind, and I made a mistake. I did it to myself.
"That's what happens when you get down to the closing laps in a race like that. It's a huge challenge and some days you don't handle the pressure. That's what happened. It was a really fundamental error. Any other lap, any other corner, I would have come straight back. Unfortunately it was seven seconds before the end of the race."
He didn't expect Edwards to close like he did. Nobody did.
"I'm not too hard on myself," Ambrose said. "I made a mistake, but you're in a pressure situation and you only get one shot at it. I'm not taking anything away from Carl. I've got nothing to feel bad about."
Ambrose said he hasn't watched it on television, said he's heard plenty enough about it already. He knows exactly what happened, and has closure on his misfortune. Despite the setback, the year has been far better than most expected for the Aussie.
His transition to the Sprint Cup level has been most impressive, and is among the season's biggest surprises. To most everybody but him, anyway.
"I'm not surprised. It's really what needed to happen," he said. "It's my fourth year in NASCAR. I've come from the Trucks, through the Nationwide Series, and when you get to Cup you only get one shot at it. So 2009 was either going to work out great for us, or really answer any questions and send me home.
"This has been the season I needed. To break in to the Cup Series you really have to do something special. You can't ride around in 25th and expect to last very long. You've got to show glimpses of promise. The most exciting thing for me is the conversions. We've been able to convert top-10s and top-5s at speedways and top-5s at short tracks. It's been very exciting."
Want a big ol' helping of reality? Ambrose is your guy.
"The biggest lesson I've learned this year is humility," he said. "You can get carried away with your success one week and be humbled the next. For me it's a long season. You're dealing with the best in the business, and it's very hard to look good every week.
"You've got to be humble and take those lumps when it doesn't go your way. That's been the biggest lesson for me, the fact that you can't expect to run well every single week."
He's getting closer.
So RCR promoted Scott Miller, which means Jeff Burton needs a new crew chief. The information I've seen is very vague, something like [a crew chief] will be named later. What the hell is going on over there? Who is Burton's crew chief? Does that mean it will be a current RCR person?
-- Erick Davis, Mickleton, N.J.
No. Not necessarily, Erick. Not at all. I spoke to Burton shortly after Childress released this information Wednesday, and again Friday morning, and he made it quite clear that he, and the entire company, is determined to hire a big-time crew chief.
"We need to hire the most-qualified person possible, whether that's from inside the company or outside," Burton said.
Burton loves working with Miller and hates to give him up, but for the greater good of a company in desperate need of answers -- and speed -- he knows he must.
Miller is extremely intelligent, and Burton said he is perfectly suited for his new role, competition director.
"That position requires a highly skilled individual, and it's a great opportunity for Scott," Burton said. "He's perfect for it. I'm disappointed for the team, but happy for RCR. It's time for us to get back after it."
Burton said Miller will remain as crew chief for the No. 31 until the end of the season, unless the desired replacement candidate is hired before season's end.
I'm a huge Roush fan, have been since Mark Martin drove the Folger's car. I know a lot about most of the drivers there, but I really don't know anything about Erik Darnell other than he ran Trucks for a while. What can you tell me about him? Is he really ready for Cup?
-- Scott, Tecumseh, Mich.
It's impossible to know whether Darnell is ready for Cup, Scott. He'd never so much as sat in a Cup car until Wednesday, when he tested the No. 96 Ford at Rockingham Speedway. Darnell is a good kid. He deserves a shot and his story is interesting.
He won the Roush Gong Show -- Discovery Channel's "Driver X," as it were -- in 2005, earning him a Truck ride starting in 2006. In three seasons of full-time Truck Series competition, he enjoyed marginal success. He won a Rookie of the Year in 2006 and collected a few victories along the way. But he'll tell you himself, he failed to meet expectations.
This year RFR bumped him to Nationwide, albeit on a part-time basis. He's performed quite well, despite the on-again, off-again nature of his current position. But that's just the racing part. The part of this story that really touches me is the personal side.
When Darnell straps into his race car and fires the motor Sunday night, he'll embark on a Sprint Cup career he was uncertain would ever happen, and certainly not in the fashion it ultimately did happen -- replacing a former champion in Bobby Labonte.
He appreciates the opportunity and wants to excel for himself and for his family and for the folks back home in Illinois, all of those along the way that in some small manner dropped right here, right now.
But more than anything, Darnell wants to prosper for his mother, Lee Anne.
Lee Anne Darnell was a racer. In fact, she met Erik's father, Danny, at the race track and the couple spent years chasing racing. At two months old, Erik was propped up at the back of a transporter at Daytona International Speedway watching the ol' man tune on a race car. He was born to do this.
From the outset of Erik's career, Lee Ann was his most devoted supporter. She was at most every race he race he ever ran, front-and-center. Until February.
On Feb. 16, Lee Anne suffered a brain aneurysm and died. It was completely unexpected. She had no prior health issues, and was just 49 years old.
"That was really just unexpected, out of the blue. And it was tough to swallow," Darnell told me earlier this week. "She was my biggest fan. She was at the race track every weekend I was doing this stuff.
"I know she was really looking forward to coming to that first Nationwide race this year. It was totally unexpected. She had no previous health problems and nothing wrong with her. It just happened. That was tough."
Losing his mother made Darnell look at racing from a different perspective. It had been his whole life. And while he still holds it among the most important aspects of his daily walk, he has a different purpose.
"I'd like to go out and do well for her, right now," he said. "She's been my biggest supporter ever since I started doing this. I guess I don't necessarily think about that when [I'm] racing, but I would like to make it, and be able to say I was doing that for her.
"I don't know that it changed any perspective on racing, so much, but it does make you realize quickly that life is short and that there's more to life than just racing. I don't think anything less of it, though. It was a tough thing to go through."
Now Darnell gets his shot at the big time. He isn't ready to quantify what will make this seven-race foray successful. He just wants to finish races.
"Atlanta's going to be tough for a first race, especially not having had an opportunity to test these cars," he said. "I guess on the opposite side of that, I've never been in a Cup car, period, whether it's the old car or this car, so I'm not going to have any preconceived notions about how it's supposed to drive. I won't know any different."
I have noticed Kyle's "maturing" and read your buddy Ed's article about it. What's your take on Kyle's treatment by the media and the fans, and this perceived maturation?
P.S. A Crimson Tide is rolling into Atlanta on Saturday and is gonna wash them Hokies away!
-- Danny Cole, Halifax, Nova Scotia
There's a line in Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars" that sums up Busch's transformation well, Danny:
I need your grace
To remind me
To find my own
I figure Busch needed Joe Gibbs' grace -- and a swift kick in the rear end -- to find his own. What gets me about this whole dynamic is, indeed, the hypocrisy of the criticism -- me included.
I said this about Tony Stewart several years back -- nobody wants vanilla. We all want "real." "Real" built NASCAR, we say, "real" men and "real" drivers and "real" personalities. But these days when a driver is "real," i.e., shows emotion and frustration and attitude, we chastise him for it.
In turn, his sponsors take exception. In turn his owner takes exception. And, in turn, he ultimately changes so he doesn't have to tolerate the residual drama. Can't blame him one bit.
I do not want Kyle Busch to change his vigor for competition. I do not want him to forego the quick wit and the no-nonsense demeanor and the drive-that-thing-like-you're-about-to-pee-your-pants philosophy.
I do want him to continue to man-up in the face of adversity. He's done that very well since Indy. What he said at Bristol after Chase Austin wrecked him was what champions do -- he explained what happened, how it happened, why it happened and just how bad it sucked. Because fact is, if it didn't happen, he probably leads the next 150 laps and hoists the trophy.
The goal all along for Busch's camp was simple -- show me, don't tell me.
Busch is showing it.
I know it's hard to compare NASCAR as a team sport to other traditional stick-and-ball sports, but in my opinion Stewart-Haas Racing is on the verge of something this year that could be among the most impressive sporting achievements ever: winning a championship in their first year.
Think about how many guys have tried to start their own team, only to not only lose races, but also their fortunes. Other than the fact that there are still a lot of races left, including the Chase, why isn't "mainstream" sports media picking up on this yet?
-- Jordan, New Bedford, Mass.
Several reasons, Jordan. First, mainstream media outlets, in general, don't pay NASCAR much mind in the first place. I hate it, but it's true. And many outlets that do take casual interest in our sport still consider it an individual achievement. Unless you're immersed in the culture, it's difficult to understand that NASCAR is as much, if not more, a team sport than stick-and-ball.
Especially at the Cup level. Especially now.
Every time a driver straps in, he fires a motor somebody else built, in a car several other guys built, and that several others yet tuned on for days and serviced five times in a total of 70 seconds. A casual viewer sees Jimmie Johnson in Victory Lane and can't quantify that the huddle he's showering with Gatorade had as much to do with getting him there as his right foot did.
Also, fair or not, many folks tend to discount Stewart's effort because he inherited an established program with a preexisting alliance that offered elite equipment, an unrivaled information pool and access to the best brains in the sport. He also didn't have to fork over millions of dollars. Gene Haas handed Stewart equity in the team. On paper it seemed impossible to fail. But this sport is about people. And if the wrong people are put together, the whole project fails.
Regardless, I marvel at what Stewart has accomplished. I didn't know how it would go. I thought he was crazier than a wombat to leave Gibbs -- especially in his driving prime. I wasn't certain he'd be willing or able to delegate responsibilities as necessary in order to focus on driving the car. But he methodically pieced together a melting-pot management group that is among the sport's best, most efficient and most common-sense driven.
People love working for Stewart. There's an old-school vibe over there.
Is your wife jealous of the giant man crush you have on Brian Vickers?
-- Scott, Scotia, N.Y.
Possibly. I'll ask her for you.
If Mark Martin and/or Kyle Busch don't make the Chase, do you think NASCAR will create the "Top 12 + Driver With Most Wins" rule?
-- Jason Barrett in Indiana
No decision would surprise me as it pertains to the Chase, Jason. NASCAR will do whatever it takes to build and maintain interest in the sport among the fan base. And if Martin or Busch fails to qualify -- for the record, I believe they'll both make it -- the debate as to whether or not winning matters enough will reignite. Matt Kenseth has a pair of wins, too.
Juan Pablo Montoya has had an excellent season. But he has just one top-five finish. Just sayin'
What do you think about Brad Keselowski's move? How long do you think he'll stay?
-- Brian, Evansville, Ind.
Moving to Penske Racing was the right decision, Brian. Heck, it was really the only decision. Keselowski said Tuesday that Rick Hendrick spent more time trying to keep him in the Hendrick Motorsports camp than he'd ever spent with Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon. That tells you unequivocally there was no opportunity at Hendrick.
You only get a couple of shots in this deal. He had to take this one. Penske equipment is elite, and if that organization puts the right people around him, it'll work. I know it will. Above all it's a good fit for Keselowski -- a Michigan boy racing for a Michigan icon. I like it.
After watching the Wreck-Fest up in Montreal (which was awesome by the way) how do the teams get some of those junked cars back into the hauler? Do they have to do some cuttin' and sawin' to get them to fit into the tight confines of the upper deck? Do they leave the sheet metal or take it home to sell?
-- John, Madison, Ala. (No, not a Tide fan. Go Noles!)
Oh yeah, totally. Post-race is a clinic in redneck engineering, John, especially at Martinsville and Bristol and the plate tracks. It looks like Cousin Eddie out there in Clark's yard slingin' RV parts in the snow.
"That's my time. Thank you for yours. With that, I'm gonna let it ride. Headed to Virginia to check in on my Gran and my farm, drink a beer, shoot some guns, maybe wet a line. Not bad." OK Marty, what does "maybe wet a line" mean? I'm guessing fishing? You Southerners are a hoot. Love it! Love your articles! Only wish you would write more!
-- Marlaine, Mentor, Ohio
Fishing, indeed, Marlaine. I got the bug pretty bad recently. My family owns some land in Virginia that includes a gorgeous creek. My boys are I are planning a man-trip there for the week after the season ends, just before Turkey Time. We're gonna rent one of those Tom Johnson RVs and set up camp for a few days of warm fires and cold beers and loud country music. There's nobody within earshot to make mad. It's perfect.
That's my time. Thank you for yours. I can't wait for Saturday night. I'll be on the Georgia Dome sideline at Virginia Tech/Alabama. Buckle up those chin straps tight, folks, and keep your head on a swivel. Slobber knockers. Lots of 'em.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
Marcos Ambrose has little to show for three years of Montreal dominance in the Nationwide Series. He has plenty to be proud of in his rookie year in Sprint Cup, though.