Daytona 500 2012: Could Marcos Ambrose Become Second Foreign-Born Driver To WIn?

In the previous 53 editions of the Daytona 500, the 35 gentlemen who have been victorious have come from a variety of locations.

We've seen winners from as far west as Washington (Derrike Cope) and California (Ernie Irvan, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick) to as far north as Wisconsin (Marvin Panch, Matt Kenseth) and Massachusetts (Pete Hamilton).

Overall, 17 different states can assert they have had a Daytona 500 champion born within their respective borders.

But only once has a driver born outside the United States tasted success in NASCAR's ultimate race.

This, of course, was Mario Andretti, who was born in Italy and became a naturalized United States citizen in 1964 – three years before his win in the 500.

On Sunday, another foreign driver has a very good chance to add his name alongside the legendary Andretti name –Marcos Ambrose.

While Ambrose may not have open-wheel and Formula One World Championship on his resumé like Andretti, his credentials are more than satisfactory. In fact, when beginning his career, Ambrose wished to follow in the same path as Andretti and one day compete in Formula One.

But racing is an expensive proposition. Despite having the necessary talent to compete in the world's most popular form of motorsports, what Ambrose didn't have was the money.

After failing to secure a ride in Europe, Ambrose returned to his native Australia and begin racing touring cars – essentially modified sedans – and quickly asserted himself as one of his country's premier racers. Ambrose won back-to-back V8 Supercar championships and became the only driver to win at least one race every season in which they participated.

But wanting more, Ambrose left Australia to pursue a career in NASCAR.

It was then Ambrose began honing his craft and learning the nuances of racing on ovals – something he had never done before – in the Truck and Nationwide Series.

In short order, the Aussie found his way into NASCAR's top series and set out to do the one thing he had yet to cross off on his racing bucket list – win a Sprint Cup race.

After several near-misses, he finally accomplished his goal when last August at Watkins Glen, he took the checkered flag in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen.

Although it may have taken awhile for the magnitude of what he accomplished to set in, Ambrose is now fully aware of what his triumph truly means.

"It's had a huge impact on my life," Ambrose said last week during NASCAR's Media Day. "I can't describe how just one day, one lap can make such a difference in your life. I got paid more. I got more respect out there on the racetrack. The sponsors love it. The teams love it. The fans love it. I got more fans out of it, so it's been great.

"I can't for one second believe it could make such a difference, but it does. To win on the main stage is important, but I didn't realize how important it really was."

Now, the task for affable Aussie is to win on an oval. And this takes us to this weekend and tomorrow's Daytona 500.

Throughout Speedweeks, Ambrose's No. 9 Ford Fusion has consistently been one of the fastest cars on the 2.5-mile track.

In last Saturday's Budweiser Shootout, Ambrose was able to avoid the carnage which collected such names as Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and finished a very respectable third.

That speed was again evident in Thursday's first Gatorade Duel, when he ran with the leaders all afternoon and was good shape for the win, running third on the last lap when the caution fell for Danica Patrick's violent crash on the backstretch.

With his third-place finish came the seventh starting spot in Sunday's season-opener. And when you also factor in how fast the Ford teams collectively have been since unloading in Daytona, and that Ambrose will have three cars with a blue oval on their hood starting in front of him, a win is certainly within the realm of possibility.

"We learned a lot for Sunday, we got a good result," Ambrose said following his Duel race. "We are smiling right now, but it was very close to being the other way around. I am proud of my Stanley Ford team. We have great power and a good handling car. Our team is rolling. We've had a great Speedweeks and we are going to keep it that way for the 500 and have a good Sunday."

And if it doesn't happen, that's fine too. Because at the end of the day, Ambrose is living the dream and doing something he loves.

"Racing is my passion and I've lived my passion," Ambrose said last week. "I've lived my dream and I'm still living it. Not many people can say they wake up and they're living out their dream. I wanted to be a professional race car driver. I wanted to race for a living and I'm doing it, so it's a good thing."

What would be an even better thing is becoming just the second international driver to put his name on the Harley J. Earl Trophy.

Then, he and Mario Andretti really would have something in common.

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