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NASCAR

Drew Bonifant: Road to the Chase is a road course for Ambrose

Marcos Ambrose secures himself inside his car before the start of practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race Friday, June 20, 2014, in Sonoma, Calif. Ambrose wants nothing more than to break Hendrick Motorsports' four-race winning streak. His best shot comes Sunday on the road course at Sonoma Raceway, where a win could earn the Australian his first berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Marcos Ambrose secures himself inside his car before the start of practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race Friday, June 20, 2014, in Sonoma, Calif. Ambrose wants nothing more than to break Hendrick Motorsports' four-race winning streak. His best shot comes Sunday on the road course at Sonoma Raceway, where a win could earn the Australian his first berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

This is the point in the season Marcos Ambrose has been waiting for.

From the moment NASCAR announced the change to its Chase for the Sprint Cup format, putting an emphasis on wins rather than accumulated points, the Australian driver has had this date circled on the calendar. Today, the Cup heads to Sonoma, Calif., a road course – the kind Ambrose excels on nearly every time he visits.

It’s his shot at contending in the fall. And he knows it.

“We know that the race here this weekend and in Watkins Glen, the two road races, are our best chance to win a race this year. That will automatically lock us into the Chase,” said Ambrose, currently 24th in the standings. “We’ve put a lot of energy and effort into Sonoma. … We’ve done some road course testing, as well, so we feel we’re as ready as we can be.”

Once it became clear that one win would likely be enough to put a driver in the Chase, the majority of Sprint Cup competitors could look at the entire regular season slate, knowing that one good day on any of those 26 dates was all they needed. For Ambrose, however, the focus was on two days: today at Sonoma and Aug. 10 at Watkins Glen, the only two road course stops on the schedule and the two venues right up Ambrose’s alley.

“My natural skill set obviously is road racing,” he said. “I’m quite confident on the ovals, but haven’t had the same success I’ve had on the road courses. Really it’s just the years of training. It’s my niche. I feel very comfortable road racing.”

It has shown. Ambrose has never made a Chase, never contended for a title, but put him on the road courses and he’s right up there with Jimmie Johnson and the best Sprint Cup has to offer. He’s won two races, both at Watkins Glen, while at Sonoma he has a 4.5 average start position, which has resulted in five top-10s in six races and an 11.8 average finish, his best at any track except – go figure – Watkins Glen.

“My talents are really good on road racing in these big, heavy stock cars. It’s been the same my whole career,” he said. “I think it’s a natural skill set for me. I have the same effort every single week. It’s just my skill set is sort of matched to road racing.”

That’s always been the case, but the difference is that in previous years, Ambrose had to go back to the speedways and race consistently enough for his road course success to pay off in the points game. Now, with a win, he’s in – a feat he acknowledged is paramount for a productive season.

“It certainly would make our year,” he said. “We know our year is not complete if you can’t make the Chase. It’s like you haven’t qualified for the finals. … This format will give us our best chance to do it, if we can win a race at either Watkins Glen or Sonoma. We know that. It would really make our year, no doubt about it.”

Question marks

It appears Roush Fenway Racing is taking an early step in dealing with an offseason that promises to be busy.

The team, one of the Sprint Cup’s most renowned organizations, is faced with the prospect of top drivers Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle leaving after this season once their contracts expire. Roush Fenway has been discussing an extension with Biffle, however, which would keep the veteran driver with the only team he’s raced for full-time.

According to Biffle, however, nothing is either official or imminent.

“My deal is definitely not done,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m trying to negotiate an extension. Nothing has changed.”

The deal, should it come together, would add stability to the team by securing Biffle, who’s made five of the last six Chases, alongside second-year Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. It also raises questions about Edwards’s future with the team. Roush Fenway went through this with Edwards in 2011, when his expiring contract kicked off a season of free agent speculation that ended when he re-signed with the team in August. According to the AP, however, it’s assumed that Edwards is jumping to Joe Gibbs Racing next year, meaning the team will likely be scrambling to replace its star driver as the season comes to a close.

Re-upping with Biffle helps, but the tasks don’t end there. As summer announcements of Edwards re-signing and Matt Kenseth leaving (in 2012) have shown, one thing is certain. If Biffle signs on and Edwards is leaving, the news will filter out, probably sooner rather than later.

Good bets

Drivers worth keeping an eye on today at Sonoma:

∎ Marcos Ambrose has always had the knack for the road courses, and he lost a major nemesis when Juan Pablo Montoya left Sprint Cup. He’ll either win or be close.

∎ Brad Keselowski has been heating up lately, with three straight finishes of third or better. He’s been flirting with the checkered flag, and it’d make sense if he broke through.

∎ Kyle Busch has won three races on road courses since 2008. Maybe an unconventional track is what he needs to reset and shake off the ugly 41st-place showing he had last weekend.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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