An Earnhardt Ganassi car is on the pole for Sunday's road course race at Sonoma and it's not Juan Pablo Montoya.
Yes, that means it's Jamie McMurray, who turned a lap of 94.986 mph to top Marcos Ambrose in the session's final group of cars. It's McMurray's second pole at Sonoma and his fourth front row start.
It was the Sprint Cup Series' first time using a group setup in qualifying. The field of 43 was divided into eight groups (three of six and five of five), and each bunch got five minutes to turn a fast lap.
The Nationwide Series has been using this procedure and typically the group format has presented some final-minute drama as drivers get faster throughout the session. However, on Saturday at Sonoma, that wasn't the case because of rapid tire wear. The tires were wearing so quickly that drivers weren't able to improve upon their first lap unless a mistake was made. That was evidenced by Ambrose, who turned two additional laps to try to unseat McMurray from the top spot but was ultimately unsuccessful. Ambrose, who was fastest in Friday's practice sessions, said that his car's motor shut off briefly as he was taking the green flag for his first lap.
The tire wear could also affect the strategy of Sunday's race and make it a race unlike what we've seen at Sonoma recently. On road courses, teams will back up their fuel calculations from the scheduled race distance end to minimize their time spent on pit road. Four of the last six race winners have pitted twice, while the other two were on a three-stop strategy.
Now, the gambit to pit just twice and stay out, especially if a caution comes out during the final fuel run, may be in jeopardy because of the tire wear. Speeds were falling off so quickly that tires could be at so much of a premium that the prevalent strategy may be to pit under caution for fresh tires rather than stay out.
Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer, last year's race winner, rounded out the top five. Jeff Gordon, a five-time Sonoma winner, was 10th and Tony Stewart, who finished second last season, was 11th.
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- Jamie McMurray
- Marcos Ambrose