Last-chance Ambrose answers the bell

Marcos Ambrose created some fireworks when he spun during the Cup race last May at Richmond. AP Photo/Scott k. Brown

CORNELIUS, N.C. -- Marcos Ambrose knew he had one shot to get it right. He was 32 when an opportunity to race full time in Sprint Cup finally came in 2009, three years after he arrived from Down Under.

This was why the Tasmanian racer came to America. Running in the back was not an option. This was it. Now or never. A second chance wasn't coming.

"It was go time," Ambrose said. "There's nowhere to hide. I knew the score. Get it done or get out. I knew that going in and I accepted it. If I had finished 35th in the standings, I'd be fishing right now."

That 35th spot in the 2009 rankings wasn't close to where Ambrose finished. Try 18th, with seven top-10 finishes, not too shabby when you look at some of the guys who finished behind him.

Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Martin Truex Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all ended the year further down the points list than Ambrose.

"I needed to make an impression so I would have a job," Ambrose said. "The 2009 season was about looking good. This season is about converting that into success."

Ambrose talked about his hopes for the 2010 season during the media tour stop last week at Michael Waltrip Racing. The No. 47 Toyota he drives for JTG/Daugherty Racing has a partnership with MWR.

All the cars for Ambrose, David Reutimann and new MWR racer Truex are built in the MWR shop.

"I think it's the most successful partnership with a team that we've seen," Ambrose said. "We have a great business model, and we're fully funded when a lot of teams around us are just hanging on or shrinking. I think we're in a great position."

Good enough that Ambrose sees making the 2010 Chase as a realistic goal.

"You have to have some luck on your side and you have to consistently perform," Ambrose said. "But I believe we can contend for the Chase, no doubt."

Ambrose was the surprise of the season in 2009. He benefited from a dramatic upswing at MWR, but he also proved he has the driving skill to compete at the Cup level.

"What we did really surprised me," said Brad Daugherty, co-owner of JTG/Daugherty Racing. "I thought if we got in the top 25 we could build on some things from there.

"We all knew Marcos was talented, but this car showed it. If it had been the old downforce car, he might have had a tougher time. But this car is hard to drive, and some guys still are trying to figure it out. Marcos' talent came through. I really believe that. He got better every stage of the season last year."

Ambrose raced two full seasons in the Nationwide Series when JTG was a stand-alone team trying to make ends meet.

"We did the best we could with what we had," Ambrose said. "We were underfunded, on our own with old cars, but finished top 10 in the championship both years.

"I guess some people noticed. And thankfully, Lee [White] saw it, because he gave me a shot.''

White is the president of Toyota Racing Development. He was aware of Ambrose's racing skills as a two-time champion in the Australian V8 Supercar Series.

"I've been to Australia a few times and seen those Supercar races," White said. "I knew a guy that had the degree of success he had down there is a pretty special talent."

But White didn't envision Ambrose as a top-20 competitor last season.

It's always aggravated me that we have to go out and find these guys at 13 or 14 that look like Tom Cruise. But that's the business. It gives you a better chance for sponsorship if they get to Cup early.

-- Brad Daugherty

"Honestly, I can't say I expected it to happen," White said. "We all knew he would tear it up on two road courses, but what really took everybody by surprise is how quickly he adapted to the variety of oval-track races."

Daugherty said his confidence in Ambrose grew after he heard a positive report from a pretty good driver -- four-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

"Jimmie competed in a Nationwide event soon after I joined the team [in 2008]," Daugherty said. "After that race, Jimmie walked up to me and said: 'That guy can drive.'''

Truex, who left Earnhardt Ganassi Racing to join MWR this season, never doubted Ambrose could compete successfully in Cup.

"Marcos was the best of the best where he came from," Truex said. "So there was no reason he couldn't come here and figure it out."

While trying to figure it out, Ambrose has ruffled a few feathers along the way with his aggressive driving style, especially on road courses. Boris Said was angry with Ambrose in 2008 when Ambrose hit Said's car and caused Said to spin out in Mexico City.

"Ambrose cheap-shotted me and took me out," Said declared after the race. "He either made a mistake or he's incredibly stupid."

Kyle Busch wasn't happy last year when Ambrose made a dive-bomb move to get by him at Watkins Glen, a pass that won the Nationwide event for Ambrose.

"I don't think it was a fair move," Busch said afterward. "I think we would have wrecked if one of the cars didn't give. I was the car that gave."

Oh, well. You can't please everyone.

Track incidents aside, Ambrose is an easy guy to like. He's a "good bloke," as his friends back home would say. His wife, Sonja, and their two young daughters, Tabitha and Adelaide, spent the offseason in Tasmania, where they want to return when his racing days are done.

Clearly, that's a few years away, and Ambrose has no time to waste.

Among the top 25 drivers last season, only two were older than Ambrose when they started racing full time in Cup (Reutimann at 36 and Greg Biffle at 33).

"I hate that," Daugherty said. "It's always aggravated me that we have to go out and find these guys at 13 or 14 that look like Tom Cruise. But that's the business. It gives you a better chance for sponsorship if they get to Cup early."

Ambrose had to do it the hard way, making his mark on another continent before traveling 9,000 miles from home to start over in NASCAR, hoping he could race his way to Cup.

And he knew it was a one-shot deal. He made the most of it.

"I'm only 33, so I'm not over the hill," Ambrose said. "But I'm definitely no spring chicken, either. NASCAR is a sport where the more you do it, the better you get. That's what I'm counting on."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.