After the fender-clanging show that Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski put on last Sunday at Watkins Glen (LEFT), the two drivers could be forgiven if they needed to take a deep breath. With the cut-off point for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup bearing down on the field, neither one can afford a letup.
Ambrose and Keselowski will have extra incentive – if not similar motives – to score a win in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Michigan International Speedway, a track where both drivers have had more than a small dose of success.
Ambrose, who prevailed over Keselowski in a classic lead-swapping finish at the Glen, has turned his lone victory this season into an opportunity to inject his name into the Chase wild card hunt. Two wild card berths for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff series are available for drivers ranked 11th to 20th in the season standings with the most victories.
Another win, which would be Ambrose's first on an oval track, would significantly elevate the Richard Petty Motorsports driver in the Chase pecking order with four races left in the regular season. He's already shown speed at Michigan, setting a record at a staggering 203.241mph to win the pole on the track's new pavement in June. But four other drivers – Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano – are in the same situation as Ambrose, all clinging to one victory but needing more to secure their fate.
"It's exciting for us to be in this position," Ambrose said. "After the lead-up to Watkins Glen was, 'OK, we're in striking distance, but we need to make some strikes.' Definitely winning at Watkins Glen helped us get some momentum and definitely gets us closer to where we want to be, but there's a lot of work to be done yet."
For Keselowski, the motives are different. The runner-up finish at the Glen elevated the Penske Racing driver two spots to fifth place in the Sprint Cup standings, firming up his chances of qualifying for the Chase as one of the top 10 drivers after the regular season.
Even if Keselowski somehow doesn't qualify through the top 10, he's virtually assured of a wild-card berth based off his three wins this season, but another victory would help him pad his bonus points tally when the standings are reset for the 10-race playoffs.
The other incentive for Keselowski is the opportunity to savor a win in his home state. The Rochester Hills, Mich., native has won twice before at the 2-mile oval in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, but he has just one top-five finish there in six Sprint Cup starts, including a subpar 13th in June.
"I definitely think we were better than a 13th-place car," Keselowski said. "I'm confident that we will have the necessary speed to contend for the win this weekend. A Cup series win at Michigan would be a big deal for me and my family."
The top four drivers in the Sprint Cup standings, including new points leader Jimmie Johnson, can mathematically secure their Chase berths this weekend.