Ambrose captures pole at The Glen; Keselowski wins Zippo 200

Bob Benz
Two-time defending champ Marcos Ambrose will start on the pole for today's Cheez-It 355 at The Glen.

For all the success Marcos Ambrose has enjoyed at Watkins Glen International in recent years, there was still one thing missing from his stellar WGI resume.

With at least one win in each of his last five visits to Watkins Glen, Ambrose claimed his first pole position for a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at The Glen Saturday, setting a new qualifying record by circling the 2.45-mile road course in 1:08.777, for an average speed of 128.241 mph.

Today, the two-time defending Sprint Cup champion at Watkins Glen will attempt to become the first driver since Jeff Gordon (1997-1999) to win three straight in NASCAR's top series at WGI when the green flag drops for the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen.

Although he's a distant 22nd in the Sprint Cup standings, Ambrose - a native of Launceston, Australia - has been the standard-bearer at Watkins Glen in recent times. Five of his six career NASCAR wins have come at Schuyler County's world-renowned road course, including his only two Sprint Cup wins at The Glen in 2012 and 2011. He won Nationwide races at WGI in 2010, 2009 and 2008.

"It feels great to be here - these days don't come around that often," Ambrose said after claiming his third career Sprint Cup pole in 177 starts during group qualifying. "It was a great lap. It wasn't perfect. It wasn't the cleanest lap I could have done, but it certainly carried a lot of momentum and it was enough to get the job done."

A total of 10 drivers shattered last year's qualifying record of 127.02 mph set last year by Juan Pablo Montoya.

Clint Bowyer will start second (127.958 mph) and Martin Truex Jr. (127.462 mph) will go off third. After testing at WGI last month, A.J. Allmendinger qualified fourth and Kyle Busch - who led Ambrose late in each of his last two Cup races at Watkins Glen - will start fifth. Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth will round out the top 10 starting grid for today's race. Series points leader Jimmie Johnson will start 18th.

"This isn't one of my best race tracks and to come that close to Marcos Ambrose and the pole is really, really cool," said Bowyer, who is second in the standings, but is still seeking his first victory of 2013. "It's so hard to go out and run one lap out there (in qualifying). You know how many opportunities there are to screw up - there's one after another."

With a victory at Sonoma in June, Truex hopes to complete a season sweep of the road courses. Currently 14th in the standings, Truex could also greatly enhance his chances to make the Chase for the Championship with a strong finish today.

"Obviously Sonoma and Watkins Glen are completely different as far as race tracks go," Truex said. "I've never qualified well here before - I've always raced well, but never qualified well. It's exactly what we wanted to do and I'm very happy about that lap and excited about the race."

The usually mild-mannered Ambrose wasn't happy following practice Friday and voiced his frustration to his team. Ambrose recorded the second-fastest lap during his first practice Friday, but had the 17th best time in the final practice.

"I did apologize to my team and that's because I did lose my cool a little bit (Friday)," Ambrose said. "I was just frustrated with the second practice. It just didn't feel like we made enough progress and I was just worried for the race and for qualifying. I know we were fast during the practice, but I just didn't feel like it was feeling right for me."

While Ambrose's final practice lap (126.472 mph) was an improvement over his first (125.220 mph), too many other drivers made greater strides between practices. Ambrose, however, and his teammates clearly ammended those issues during group qualifying.

"They did a good job to calm me down and not overreact to what I was saying and made some small adjustments for today and they've worked out really well," Ambrose said. "We were just short on time (Friday). We had a lot of work to do because we didn't test up here and we hadn't done any testing on these style race tracks, so we were catching up all day (Friday) and it just got the better of me."

Now, Ambrose is hoping to get the better of the 43-car field today at Watkins Glen and become the third person to win three straight Cup races on the famed road course. Gordon and Mark Martin (1993-1995) each three-peated at WGI in a span of seven years.

And unlike his last two visits to victory lane, Ambrose will start with the field in his rearview. He started fifth last year and third in 2011.

"If we have a really good day, we might be in control a little longer and be able to dictate the race a little better," Ambrose said. "I felt like the last two years we've been coming back through the field through cautions falling at the wrong time or fuel strategy or tire strategy or whatever. So for us, we're very focused on staying at the front and hopefully the race will go our way and we can manage our race a little better than the last two years."

Nationwide Series Zippo 200

Brad Keselowski won the Zippo 200 at The Glen on Saturday afternoon. The win gives Keselowski his fourth straight win in his last four NASCAR Nationwide Series starts this season (though not in consecutive events) and the 24th of his career.

Keselowski started fifth and led 46 of 82 laps, more than any other driver in the race.

Polesitter Sam Hornish Jr. finished second, giving Roger Penske Racing a 1-2 finish. "Today was an excellent day," said Keselowski. "I came up in Victory Lane and with a 1-2 Penske finish, it's just great."

The NASCAR Nationwide Series championship point standings tightened after the Zippo 200. The top three drivers in the standings, Dillon, Hornish and Regan Smith are separated by just five points with 12 races remaining. Points leader Austin Dillon finished 12th after battling fuel line problems.

The defending Sprint Cup Series champion hopes his success today translates into success in Sunday's Cheez-It™ 355 at The Glen, given that the 2.45-mile course is among his favorites. "This has been a great track for me," said Keselowski. "I remember coming here with my Dad in the '90s and having a love affair with it."

Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, the Cheez-It™ 355 at The Glen starts at 1 p.m. Tickets are still available at the gates.