Slow start testing Ambrose's resilience

They ranked us up like horses and sold us out of hand,
They roped us to the plough, brave boys, to plough Van Diemen's Land.
-- 19th-century Australian ballad, quoted in "The Fatal Shore" by Robert Hughes

To call Marcos Ambrose Australian is inadequate. He is Tasmanian.

When you find Australians far from home, they're usually tough, cheerful and optimistic. Tasmanians tend to be a cut above even the usual Aussie resilience.

Their island, settled as Van Diemen's Land in the early 1800s, was the toughest penal colony in the British Empire -- although the crimes in Mother England usually amounted to game poaching by hungry farmers on noblemen's estates.

Australia was hard enough; Van Diemen's Land was hell on the other side of the world. And so the term has come to connote resilience in the face of unthinkable adversity.

When Ross Ambrose, Marcos' father, co-founded an open-wheel race car construction company in 1973, the name was easy to pick: Van Diemen.

And now, 9,000 miles from home, driving for a throwback one-car team in NASCAR, suffering through an exasperating slump -- a plummet from last year's "breakout season," as he calls it -- Marcos Ambrose struggles to recover.

He will try to turn and make a stand on his kind of ground, the road course at Sonoma, Calif., on Sunday.

He finished third there last year, then second at Watkins Glen, N.Y., later in that summer when he appeared to be NASCAR's fastest-rising driver.

Add to those road course performances a third-place finish at Bristol and a fourth at Talladega, and a total of seven top-10 finishes in Cup, and Ambrose seemed well on his way to becoming America's best-known Tasmanian since … well … Taz, the cartoon character inspired by the Tasmanian devil, the indigenous little animal of the island.

"We came into the season [this year] with high expectations and fell flat on our face at Daytona," his team co-owner, ESPN television analyst Brad Daugherty, said this week. "And we just haven't been able to dig ourselves back out of that hole from the first two races when the motors broke."

Here stands Ambrose with zero top-5s, only one top-10 (ninth at Richmond), 30th in the points. He at least would be 26th if not for a 150-point penalty his JTG Daugherty team suffered alongside its technology ally, Michael Waltrip Racing, for non-approved pans underneath radiators. (Sounds about as heinous as a hungry farmer poaching a deer out of his lordship's woods.)

To all that, "You pile on the fact that our [Toyota Racing Development] motors are down about 30-35 horsepower," Daugherty said. "That doesn't help."

"It's been a really tough season, no doubt about it," Ambrose acknowledged in a teleconference this week. "We've had a couple of non-finishes with mechanical problems. We've had a points penalty. … We've had a lot of non-finishes for crashes, some my fault, some not …

"Sure, my confidence has been hit; our team confidence has been hit. We had a breakout season last year."

Now, amid this sort of buffeting by luck and the competition, "You get in a slump and people start looking at you, you start looking at yourself -- as a race car driver, as a person, as a dad [of two young daughters]. You've got to look at the commitment you're making to racing."

Sure, my confidence has been hit; our team confidence has been hit. We had a breakout season last year.

-- Marcos Ambrose

On the other side of the world, no less.

"And then when it starts to go pear-shaped like it has for us this year, you start reflecting on, 'What am I doing wrong? Have I lost my touch? Have I lost focus?'"

The last person Daugherty blames is Ambrose -- "I think Marcos' talent is undeniable," he said, meaning on road courses, especially.

At Sonoma, "If we hit our pit stops right, don't get into trouble, don't bend up our race car, he's so good at road courses that he can overcome our lack of power," Daugherty said.

Most of the time, that is. With the lack of horsepower -- Joe Gibbs Racing is the only Toyota team this year to find its own horsepower outside the manufacturer's engineering -- Daugherty fears Ambrose will be handicapped on possible restarts with American road course maestros such as Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon.

"He can't do anything with them," Daugherty said. "Where he's going to beat a lot of guys is actually through the technical parts of the race course. But you get on the long straights, he's down 30 horsepower."

Adversity, piled onto adversity, piled onto adversity.

Now comes the Tasmanian side of Ambrose -- indeed the Van Diemonian side, as they would've called it in the 19th century -- that's in his cultural DNA.

"I've got a dream job," he said. "I've got awesome equipment from MWR. … We've had some issues; we're working through them. We're a good group. I have no complaints about the effort that's going into our package and what I've got."

As to Sunday's race specifically, "even if we did have issues like you're talking about with engines, Sonoma is always using top gear. So it's all about forward drive, good car handling.

"Even the straightaway on the restart has a bend in it. So horsepower's really not going to play any factor."

From mainland Australia, they simply tell you, "No worries, mate."

From Van Diemen's Land, they even tell you why.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.