By Cole Cusumano
Ten years ago, two future champions and a road course ringer from Australia put on an unfathomable spectacle at Watkins Glen International that’s still talked about today. Whenever NASCAR returns to upstate New York, it’s impossible not to relive what could be deemed the greatest final lap in the sport’s history.
The Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen concluded with 2.45 miles and 11 turns of nonstop pandemonium. It’s one of those moments you remember exactly where you were when it occurred, because what transpired was so outrageous, you knew you were witnessing something special.
“When you reflect back on it – you do this long enough, you think you’ve seen it all,” Allen Bestwick, who provided play-by-play analysis that day, told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “In the course of two laps, the number of things that happened that changed the outcome of that race was mind boggling.”
Setting the Scene
Prior to the final lap, it was a fairly standard race for the early 2010’s: competitive racing, an abundance of green-flag runs and Kyle Busch was out front for most of the day. It wasn’t until the last restart with 16 to go the tone would be set for what was to come.
Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose led the field to green from the front row, but Busch held true to his elite restart reputation and took the top-two cars three-wide into Turn 1 for the lead. With 10 to go, it was all take and no give for the second-spot, which allowed the Candyman to dwarf his competitors in the rearview mirror.
For Ambrose, frustration began to mount, as he had one of the fastest cars all day and felt he was out of contention for the victory. Even after claiming second from Keselowski, he began making mistakes, which allowed Busch’s lead to grow even more.
“The end of the race was chaos,” Ambrose told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “At first I thought my car was going away and I had used up all my stuff trying to catch the leaders.
“I was having a tough time keeping my speed and momentum up and was not really looking up at the road that much to see what Brad [Keselowski] and Kyle [Busch] were doing because I was so focused on my own issues. With about five laps to go, I realized the gap had closed, and both Brad and Kyle were also sliding around all over the place.”
With three laps remaining, there was still a two-second margin that separated the leader. Suddenly, with two to go, Keselowski surged past Ambrose for the runner-up position and both were within half-a-second of the leader.
The White Flag is Out!
Busch led a race-high 43 laps and was in a prime position when the white flag was displayed … or so everyone thought. Unbeknownst by the broadcast and viewers until a post-race interview with crew chief Dave Rogers, Bobby Labonte had been spraying oil all over the track.
The fluid was so fine and clear, no one had a clue it was there. Although Busch fell victim to circumstance, this oil would end up being the secret ingredient for arguably the most entertaining white-flag lap of all-time.
Descending down the frontstretch and into Turn 1, Busch ran a defensive line by hugging the right-hander. Having run in the oil, the No. 18 glided across the track and over the red-and-white curbing as Keselowski closed.
Busch’s struggles continued entering the esses, as he tried to collect himself and darted from the outer lane in an attempt to block Keselowski from capturing the lead. A late maneuver sent the No. 18 around off the nose of the Dodge Charger as cheers roared from the grandstands and infield campgrounds.
“The biggest thing was that oil was being spread around the race track,” Busch told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “It was running in the groove, so you were trying to figure out where to run on the race track in order to miss the fluid. Trying to run your normal groove wasn’t really working and trying to run off groove when you had to slide through the regular groove and hit that oil wasn’t working either.
“We were all kind of battling through that, and me being the first one to it, it was hard to see. It was definitely a unique ending to a race, unfortunately not on a good side for us, but [we] certainly made the highlight reel.”
Esses-ing The Situation
With Busch out of the picture, Keselowski and Ambrose were left to navigate the 2.45-mile slip-n-slide on their own. After escaping the esses, the frontrunners were forced to quickly assess the situation while soaring up the inclined backstretch.
Unfortunately for Keselowski, the contact made with the No. 18 punctured the left-front of the nose by the wheel well, causing a tire rub and uncertainty for the eventual 2012 Champion with Ambrose closing.
“Brad was driving wild, and once Kyle crashed, I knew it was going to be on,” Ambrose said. “By the last lap I had worked out the oil was down on the track and that the best grip was either off line or on the grass.”
Pass(es) in the Grass
Entering the bus stop, both drivers recognized the only way to sustain any traction in a heavy braking zone was by doing a little offroading through the grass. Both COT engines grumbled as Ambrose’s yellow-and-black Ford Fusion began getting caked in dirt and dust while he hounded the rear bumper of the blue deuce.
Attempting to navigate through low visibility, Ambrose bobbed and weaved behind the No. 2 through the carousel, which more so emulated a roller coaster at this point. After literally eating Keselowski’s dust, the Tasmanian Devil barreled down the 10-degree decline of the 2,040-foot chute in pursuit of the leader.
“If it sounded like we were chuckling and smiling and having a good time as it was happening, it’s because we were,” Bestwick said. “There’s something about road course racing in the Cup Series – in NASCAR, really – that brings the field together and really brings the excitement level up.
“I don’t know if it’s that the balance-to-driver input-to-car swings a little more heavily to the driver on a road course than it does on an oval, but just in general, NASCAR road course racing has been some of the most exciting racing of the last two decades, and that’s why there’s more of it now.”
As Keselowski tried nursing his Dodge through the preferred line, which was covered in oil, through Turn 9, Ambrose came flying down the straightaway and aggressively slid wide through the corner with his tires screaming louder than the spectators in attendance.
Carrying tons of momentum out of the turn, Ambrose jammed the nose of his No. 9 into the rear bumper of Keselowski’s Charger so hard, it left a dent. This was enough to vault the Australian born driver to the lead with two corners remaining.
Keselowski quickly returned the favor entering Turn 10 and sent Ambrose wide and across the red-and-white curbing. The driver of the No. 2 had to collect himself after the contact, allowing his competitor to be door-to-door with him in the final corner.
Questions to Be Answered
“Is the tire going to make it all the way around? Do they use the bumpers? Can Ambrose save it? Who gets here first?”
While not physically racing, the impact Bestwick had in accentuating the moment is not to be diminished. The artistry of his commentary aided in building even more suspense than was thought to be possible during the already high-octane white-flag lap.
“I think when you do this long enough, you learn that viewers can see what you’re seeing,” Bestwick said. “How can I amplify that? How can I put the punctuation point on what you just saw to further increase, either your understanding of the moment or your enjoyment of the moment?
“Make no doubt about it – on an insane last lap like that, I don’t have to entertain you. I don’t have to tell you anything, but amplify or punctuate what you just saw. Don’t ruin a headline: amplify the headline.”
To the Checkered Flag!
Exiting the final corner and down the frontstretch, both cars snapped loose as they streaked to the finish line. In the end, it was Ambrose who scored the second and final win of his Cup career.
“I had a bunch of wheel spin coming to the line, as I had crossed over the oil slick line taking a defensive position into the final corner,” Ambrose said. “I was not sure even coming to the finish line that I was going to make it, as I had lost a lot of momentum. I didn’t look in my mirror after the final turn on the run to the line to see if Brad was faster, as I didn’t want to know. It was really only by the time I got down into Turn 1 that the win sank in.
“The track was in such terrible condition that even just finishing the race was a miracle. I think both Brad and myself made a lot of mistakes on the final lap. It was really luck that I crossed the line first — it could have been either of us!”
Keselowski was forced to settle for second-best by .571 seconds in Watkins Glen.
“It was an epic day,” Keselowski told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I wish I would’ve won, but there was a lot going on there and it’s a fun race that will go down in history at The Glen as one of the best races ever there. I’m proud to be a part of it, I just wish I was the winning car.”
Final Word from Ambrose
“My life is somewhat removed from the race track these days – particularly driving – so in some ways it [feels] like a lifetime ago,” Ambrose said. “It’s certainly a race that I am proud of being a part of. Every race I had in NASCAR was a privilege. I am just so grateful to have had the opportunity to be part of it all, the good races and the bad.”