It was as though Circuit Gilles Villeneuve owed Marcos Ambrose a victory and finally paid up.
The Australian, who had led more laps than any other driver in the first four editions of the NAPA Auto Parts 200, took the lead on a restart with nine laps to go and held off crowd favourite Alex Tagliani of Lachenaie, Que., to take the checkered flag on Saturday.
Ambrose had started at the back because he missed the pre-race drivers meeting for the NASCAR Nationwide event. Then he survived a collision with 1997 Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve halfway through the race that knocked him back to 28th place.
“I kept my head down, stayed calm, ticked off some good laps and made some aggressive passes,” Ambrose said after the win. “It's been a great day.
“I feel like I passed 400 cars out there. I finally got to the front when it counted. I've come close here. I've led more laps than anyone but today I was able to close the deal.”
Tagliani finished second at 1.112 seconds off the leader while Michael McDowell was third, Steve Wallace was fourth and J.R. Fitzpatrick of Cambridge, Ont., came in an impressive fifth.
After the race, NASCAR announced that the right rear spring on Ambrose's car would be examined at its research and development centre in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday. A spokesman said that no matter what is found, the victory would not be taken away.
Tagliani and Villeneuve, teammates on the powerful Penske team for the weekend, started from the front row but neither was able to hold back Ambrose's Stanley Ford.
Villeneuve had cleanly held the lead through the first three of six yellow flags in the 74-lap race, but with Ambrose just behind going into a chicane on the restart after the fourth caution, he locked his brakes, went wide across the grass infield and T-boned the Aussie when he came out the other side.
“I just saw Marcos on the inside and instead of driving aggressively and leaning on him, I gave him plenty of room, ended up on the grey and just lost it,” said Villeneuve, who placed 27th, two laps off the lead. “After that the power steering was burst and we had to replace it.
Asked if it was bad luck he said: “No, I just fell asleep there.”
Attendance figures weren't announced, but with warm, sunny weather and Villeneuve and Tagliani on the front row, it appeared to be the biggest crowd since the inaugural Nationwide race in 2008.
Grandstands were packed and thousands lined the sides of the track, most them cheering wildly — for Villeneuve for half the race and then for Tagliani as he chased the lead.
There are concerns it may be the final race in Montreal after the Quebec government turned down a request for $500,000 in funding, but organizers are optimistic a deal will be made before NASCAR releases its 2012 schedule later in August.
A fifth straight action-filled race should help their cause.
Tagliani, who races full time in IndyCar for Schmidt Motorsports but takes the occasional stock car race, traded the lead with veteran Ron Fellows of Toronto through two restarts after the Villeneuve crash.
But after another on the 61st race when defending champion Boris Said brushed a wall, Ambrose roared past and couldn't be caught.
“We went with a setup that was easy on the tires but no good for putting heat on them in restarts, so it penalized us on restarts,” said Tagliani, who said he was almost taken out in the Villeneuve-Ambrose collision.
Ambrose, Carl Edwards, and Trevor Bayne made it to the race about 25 minutes before the start from the Sprint Cup event in Michigan. They arrived on Edward's jet — a two-hour flight — helicoptered to the track and took a boat along the Olympic rowing basin beside the track to the garages.
“I started at 10 a.m. with Cup series practice,” he said. “We jumped on a helicopter to jump on a plane to jump in another helicopter to jump in a boat to jump in a race car.
“It's been an incredible day and I have to thank Carl for letting me piggyback on his plans.”
The trio flew back to Brooklyn, Mich, after the race for the Sprint Cup event there on Sunday.
It was Ambrose's first Nationwide win of the year and came after he took his first victory in Sprint Cup, a level above Nationwide. He won US$87,550 while Tagliani took home $54,975.
On his mix-up with Villeneuve, Ambrose said: “Sorry it ruined his day.
“He went on the grass and I guess he couldn't slow down. No hard feelings there.”
What is expected to be the final career race for Patrick Carpentier of Joliette, Que., ended in disappointment as he was bumped off the track and out of the race by Wallace while challenging near the front with nine laps to go. He climbed onto some scaffolding at trackside and watched with sad eyes as the race played out.
“I'm amazed a guy like Wallace has a full time ride,” said Carpentier. “It's like sometimes he spaces out. I've never said this before, but I think the guy is an idiot. But what can you do?
Wallace was apologetic about the incident in a post-race TV interview, but Carpentier said: “He needs to apologize every race. His sponsor should be called My Apology.”
Fellows finished 11th and Danica Patrick, in her first NASCAR road race, was 24th.
Andrew Ranger of Roxton Pond, Que., won the NASCAR Canadian Tire race earlier Saturday but his bid for the double ended when his engine blew 25 laps into the Nationwide.
Maryeve Dufault, the first Canadian woman in a Nationwide event, spun out on lap 14 and stopped in the middle of the track. The Sorel, Que., native's mistake brought out a yellow flag.
Then on lap 40, another Quebecer, Louis-Philippe Dumoulin, stopped on track to bring out the second yellow, erasing Villeneuve's nearly six-second lead.
Ranger started from the pole and never looked back in the NASCAR Canadian Tire series event.
It was a second win of the year for Ranger and the third of his career at the track. He also won at Toronto on July 9. It was only his fourth race of the season in the Canadian stock car series.
Ranger also won the Montreal race in 2008 and last year.