WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Smoke's out. Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose are desperate to get in.
With only five races remaining before NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins, Tony Stewart's chances of winning a fourth series title more than likely vanished Monday night on an Iowa race track. Stewart was injured driving his open-wheel sprint car when it flipped, and he remains in a hospital recovering from surgery to stabilize two broken bones in his right leg.
Stewart's streak of 521 consecutive NASCAR starts will end Sunday on the road course at Watkins Glen International. It's a big disappointment for Stewart, who is 11th in the points standings with one victory and has a record five Cup triumphs at The Glen. Max Papis will drive Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing in the Cheez-It 355 this weekend.
"I mean, obviously, it's a huge letdown to everybody at Stewart-Haas, knowing that we were making some great strides," said Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's longtime crew chief and current competition director at SHR. "I felt like we were peaking at the right time."
The top 10 drivers in the points standings automatically qualify for the 10-race Chase, and the final two wild-card spots go to the drivers in 11th to 20th place with the most victories. Barring a bad race, Stewart's absence will give SHR teammate Ryan Newman a break. Newman only trails his boss by 19 points and is on the rise with a victory at Indianapolis and a fourth-place finish last week at Pocono in the last two Cup races.
Still, with Stewart missing from the 43-car field, Montoya and Ambrose have one less driver to fret about as they seek that elusive first win of what has been a difficult season for both. A victory by either driver would vault him into the top 20 in the standings and into wild-card consideration for the Chase. A victory on an oval before the Chase cutoff after Richmond also would be needed, something neither has been able to accomplish in his Sprint Cup career.
Montoya and Ambrose share a unique distinction: each has two Cup victories, and they've all come on the two road courses NASCAR's top series visits annually. Montoya has one victory each at Sonoma (2007) and Watkins Glen (2010), while Ambrose will be chasing his third straight victory at The Glen.
"The only thing we need to do at The Glen to have a chance of winning is not screw up," said Montoya, who finished 36th at Sonoma in June after running out of gas while running second with one lap to go. "Yeah, honestly, if we have 10 pit stops, we're in the top three. I'll guarantee you we're in the top three. Worst-case scenario we're fourth. If we run out of brakes, we'll finish fifth."
Ambrose has become the newest master of the high-speed turns at The Glen, and the affable Aussie figures to be the man to beat in the 90-lap race around the 2.45-mile layout. Ambrose has won all three Nationwide races he's entered at Watkins Glen, and in five Cup starts here has two wins, one second and two thirds, including an impressive drive from last to third for the Wood Brothers in 2008.
"Even with small teams, he's a phenomenal road-course driver, and he definitely made everybody step up their game," Cup driver Michael McDowell said.
"I think it comes down to one simple thing — he's really good," added AJ Allmendinger. "He's just really good in these cars. He's the guy to beat every time he shows up."
Ambrose will be vying to become the first Cup driver to win three straight races at the same track since Denny Hamlin at Martinsville (2009-10) and the third to do so at Watkins Glen, along with Jeff Gordon (1997-99) and Mark Martin (1993-95).
"We've had a really rough year," said Ambrose, who has only three top-10s and sits 22nd in points, just ahead of Montoya. "Our car isn't where it needs to be."
Except at Watkins Glen.
"This race can very quickly turn it around and put us in contention for a wild-card berth," Ambrose said.
Montoya's victory at The Glen three years ago was dominating. He led 74 laps in a race-long duel with Ambrose, who faded to third at the end behind Kurt Busch. Now, if his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team can only avoid those costly mistakes.
"It's not that we're not trying," Montoya said. "I've been very close, a lot of opportunities, we've thrown them away. We've found ways to screw them up. But to tell you the truth, as a team we keep our head up and we keep fighting, and believe me, we believe we have a chance. We really, really believe that we have a good chance."