This weekend marks the opening race of the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season in Daytona Beach, Florida, and Marcos Ambrose will be the first Aussie to take the starter's flag.
After several years ascending the NASCAR ladder from Busch trucks to NEXTEL Cup, Ambrose starts his first full-season in the top-level Sprint Cup in NASCAR holy-land, Daytona. He will be racing the #47 car of JTG Daugherty Racing - one of 35 guaranteed starting spots in the race.
"I have to pinch myself every day because it is the biggest race there is," said Ambrose.
"This is our first race of our first season in Sprint Cup and it's the Daytona 500. I never thought I'd be a driver or be talking about the Daytona 500 with my background and where I'm from (Tasmania)."
"Daytona is obviously very fast, but it's one of the toughest tracks we go to in a season. It drives differently to Talladega and you are really on the edge through the turns.
"If you get too loose and get out of shape while you running, flat-out in the pack at Daytona, you can end up wrecking your car as well as 20 other guy's cars. It's tough, it takes a lot of concentration and it's very, very fast."
The 2.5-mile speedway track (below) is the first oval track since November for many of the drivers inclusding Marcos after a testing ban was implemented by officials for the entire off-season.
200 laps, 500 miles/805 kilometres
Marcos racked up a 21st and 26th in practice, but earned a rather disappointing 30th position in qualifying yesterday afternoon. However, this is only for the heat races later in the week, not the actual 500.
"Qualifying in on speed to those Cup races is the most nerve-wracking thing I've done in my life," said Ambrose.
"I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. It's surprising how the Cup cars don't handle that well even in single car runs. Everyone is very aggressive in trying to get as much speed out of them. They are less stable than what I anticipated for a single car run. I'm looking forward to getting in the draft and seeing what I've got."
No matter where Ambrose finishes, he will still hit paydirt. While last year's winner Ryan Newman earned an expected US$1,506,000 (AUS$2,254,000) for his win, the bottom end of the field are known to pocket a cool quarter-mil US whether they finish or not. Last year's tail-ender Kenny Wallace earned US$256,735 (A$382,509) for last position after breaking down on lap 143 of 200.
OFFICIAL PRESS RELEASE
- THE START OF A NEW CHAPTER FOR AMBROSE ...
Marcos Ambrose begins his first full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the top level of NASCAR, in the biggest race of them all, the Daytona 500, on February 15 in Daytona Beach, Florida
For Ambrose, it's the realisation of a dream that officially began in March 2005, when the two-time V8 Supercar champion announced his intention to move to the United States with his young family to pursue a career in NASCAR.
It has been a gradual climb for Ambrose, who made 22 starts in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2006 before two full seasons in the Nationwide Series, highlighted by his first NASCAR win last season at Watkins Glen.
After all the hard work, learning and sacrifices, Ambrose now embarks on his first full season in Sprint Cup, after 11 starts at Cup level last season, with a best finish of third place at Watkins Glen.
AUSTRALIAN SPORTING HISTORY IN THE MAKING ...
Ambrose's start in the Daytona 500 will come just two weeks after Arizona Cardinals punter Ben Graham also etched his name into Australian sporting history.
Graham, a former AFL player with the Geelong Cats, made his own switch to US sport in 2004 and became the first Australian to compete in the biggest game in the NFL season, Superbowl XLIII, on 1 February 2009.
Like the Daytona 500, the Superbowl was staged in the state of Florida, in Tampa Bay.
Ambrose actually spoke with Graham about his move Stateside back at a function for the Ford Motor Company in 2004, which was a common sponsor of Graham and Ambrose.
"Ben Graham has come from AFL, which is our version of football in Australia," said Ambrose.
"He's had a lot of success. I sat down with him around 2004 at a function, and he was saying how he was coming over here to have a crack at it. So good luck to him because I know just how big a move that is.
"Unfortunalety for Ben, Arizona couldn't quite get across the line in the Superbowl, but it was a great game. Hopefully I can get the job done and win the 500 to make up for it ...
"But I wouldn't put any bets on that. I think just the experience for me this first year is what it's all about. I just want to settle in, do the right thing and show everybody that I can do it."
Ambrose will become the first Australian to race in the world-famous Daytona 500 when he takes the green flag aboard the #47 Little Debbie machine of JTG Daugherty Racing.
GUARANTEED STARTS A RELIEF FOR AMBROSE ...
As a result of the #47 entry being elevated into the Top 35 in Sprint Cup owner's points, Ambrose will not only have a guaranteed start in the Daytona 500, but the first five races of the 2009 season.
The #47 entry ended the 2008 season in 36th place in owner's points, but was elevated into the top 35 when the #41 of Chip Ganassi Racing was removed from contention as a result of that team's merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc. Unlike the #01 and #15 entries from DEI, the #41 was not transferred to another team.
At each Sprint Cup event, the top 35 car entries in owner's points are assured a start in the race regardless of their qualifying performance. The following eight spots are open to 'go or go home' entries, with one of the eight reserved for a past Sprint Cup champion if necessary.
The first five races of the 2009 season assure the top 35 from 2008 as the guaranteed entries, with the sixth race of the season in Martinsville going on 2009 owner's points.
RESTRICTOR PLATE RACING A THROW OF THE DICE ...
Four times a season, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races on the 2.5-mile superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega.
The long straights and steep banking create a massive, flat-out challenge for drivers and teams and as such, NASCAR mandates that engine horsepower is cut at races on these two tracks to keep speeds under control.
With restrictor plates fitted between the engine manifold and carburettor to slow engine power, the racing tends to be tighter, tougher and closer, with cars drafting each other in a pack. At times, the entire 43-car field can run in one bunch, two, three or even four abreast.
This situation can sometimes lead to what is known as 'The Big One', where contact in the pack can lead to massive accidents that can effect up to half of the field.
1. #1 Martin Truex Jr 47.872
2. #5 Mark Martin 47.919
3. #39 Ryan Newman 47.929
4. #42 Juan Pablo Montoya 47.938
5. #21 Bill Elliott 47.939
6. #48 Jimmie Johnson 47.942
7. #8 Aric Almirola 47.962
8. #28 Travis Kvapil 47.981
9. #24 Jeff Gordon 48.025
10. #14 Tony Stewart 48.042
30. #47 Marcos Ambrose 48.384
RESULTS: Sprint Cup Practice 1
1. #21 Bill Elliott 47.963
2. #96 Bobby Labonte 48.022
3. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr 48.039
4. #1 Martin Truex Jr 48.066
5. #18 Kyle Busch 48.074
6. #20 Joey Logano 48.114
7. #11 Denny Hamlin 48.118
8. #48 Jimmie Johnson 48.168
9. #39 Ryan Newman 48.173
10. #98 Paul Menard 48.184
21. #47 Marcos Ambrose 48.345
RESULTS: Sprint Cup Practice 2
1. #21 Bill Elliott 47.885
2. #1 Martin Truex Jr 47.999
3. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr 48.039
4. #18 Kyle Busch 48.043
5. #39 Ryan Newman 48.055
6. #5 Mark Martin 48.073
7. #96 Bobby Labonte 48.081
8. #00 David Reutimann 48.159
9. #8 Aric Almirola 48.159
10. #14 Tony Stewart 48.174
26. #47 Marcos Ambrose 48.396