LAS VEGAS (AP) — When Richard Petty Motorsports courted Marcos Ambrose last season, the Australian saw an opportunity to further his NASCAR development and partner with manufacturer Ford.

It wasn’t an easy decision, and Ambrose certainly had second thoughts when financial issues nearly shut down RPM right about the time he began to string together some decent results with JTG Daugherty Racing. He kept his word, though, and was in RPM’s No. 9 Ford at Daytona.

“I took a chance and I really stuck my neck out to see if I had what it took,” Ambrose said of his move to RPM.

But the launch with his new team hardly produced the results he had hoped for through the first two weeks: Ambrose was 37th at Daytona, 16th at Phoenix and came to Las Vegas Motor Speedway ranked 27th in the Sprint Cup Series standings.

It put the pressure on Ambrose to step up and turn things around, which he did by qualifying second for Sunday’s race. He briefly held the pole until he was bumped by Matt Kenseth, who set a track record with the fifth pole of his 12-year career.

In all, Fords swept the first four qualifying spots, as Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle qualified third and fourth.

All four cars are powered by Roush Yates Engines, which is off to an incredible start to the season. The top three finishers at the Daytona 500 were powered by Roush Yates, and Edwards won the pole last week at Phoenix.

“We’ve had such a great start to the 2011 season,” said chief engine builder Doug Yates. “We’ve worked really hard in the offseason to see gains on the race track, and I think there are even more great things to come.”

Everybody in the blue oval group is anticipating a great year after a mediocre 2010.

Ford didn’t win its first Sprint Cup Series race until Biffle drove to Victory Lane at Pocono in August, and he and Edwards combined to give the manufacturer just four victories all season. But Edwards’ two wins came in the final two events of the season, proving that both Roush Fenway and Ford’s new FR9 engine had turned the corner.

Then 20-year-old Trevor Bayne drove a Wood Brothers Ford to victory at the Daytona 500, and Edwards had the car to beat last week at Phoenix until he was wrecked by Kyle Busch. As the NASCAR schedule hits the first intermediate track of the season on Sunday, the Ford group is looking at Las Vegas as a measure of where their equipment stacks up against the competition.

“The real test is how we run here and at Bristol,” Edwards said. “If our cars are that good, then this is going to be a great year.”

That’s what Ambrose was hoping for when he left JTG after two seasons.

Ambrose figured he could have more success with RPM and its alliance with Roush, and it got him into a partnership with Ford, which has supported Ambrose in Australia and helped him come to NASCAR. The decision wasn’t easy because of the gratitude Ambrose felt toward JTG for giving him a shot, but the opportunity to align himself with Roush and Ford was too good.

He never said he regretted the decision, but when financial issues put RPM on a day-to-day operating budget, Ambrose was certainly wondering if he’d made the wrong choice. RPM made it to the end of the season, then signed on new investors that have strengthened the organization.

Any hopes of a strong start to the season were dashed when Ambrose was collected in an early 14-car accident at Daytona. Then he was off at Phoenix, where he fell a lap off the pace and struggled through a long afternoon.

So knowing how strong the Fords were had him nervous about the start of the Las Vegas weekend, especially since RPM teammate AJ Allmendinger is off to a fast start that has him tied for third in the Cup standings.

“I am just happy for Richard Petty Motorsports, who went through a lot at the end of last year,” Ambrose said. “To be strong this early with AJ running top three in points, it is just a good feeling over there looking forward to hopefully keeping this run going.”

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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