By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
SONOMA, Calif. -- The new road-course qualifying format for Sunday's Toyota Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway throws variables into the equation that NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers haven't had to consider in the past.
With cars qualifying in groups, rather than a single car for a single lap, will the fastest cars be able to get a clean run around the 1.99-mile track? Kurt Busch believes the Cup drivers will have an understanding during the qualifying laps.
"When we qualify, everybody that's going to be in that fast group -- and hopefully I'll be in that group -- we'll just do one lap, and we're all going to pull off after the finish line right behind the grandstands in Turn 1," Busch told the NASCAR Wire Service.
"You don't have to go the rest of the track and mosey around. You can get off the track quickly. You want to go out behind a guy that's going to know to use his mirror and respect the guys behind him after he's done his lap."
Busch got his wish. With a lap in the first practice session at 93.430 mph, fourth behind leader Marcos Ambrose's 94.049, Busch will qualify in the final group, with qualifying order set by practice speeds. All else being equal, the pole for Sunday's race should come from the final group.
That wasn't the case last year during Busch's debut at Road America in a Nationwide Series race. Because he was commuting between Sonoma and Elkhart Lake, Wis., Busch's first track time at Road America was during qualifying, and the group-based format for time trials -- already in place in the Nationwide Series -- hurt him.
"I was on my third lap trying to post a lap because it was my first trip to Road America," Busch said. "I didn't even practice at Road America last year. I just went there to qualify and to race, so I'm using qualifying as a practice session, and a couple of guys were in my way in the Carousel. It wasn't their fault, but I needed that track time to get the lap time."
With his momentum broken, Busch qualified 22nd. At Sonoma, however, he expects the Cup drivers to be more cognizant of fellow drivers.
"The Cup guys seem to yield to each other a little more easily, with the knowledge of where they are on the track and still somebody trying to post a lap," said Busch, who finished third at Sonoma last year in the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. "The guys I had trouble with at Road America were rookies."
That doesn't mean there aren't potential complications.
If a driver makes a mistake on his first lap, he or she has the option of trying a second or even a third, time permitting. Each group will have five minutes to complete qualifying, starting with the green flag to the first car in the group.
"If you make a mistake, it gives you a second chance," Ambrose said. "In the original one-lap format, if you made a mistake and you lost a second, you could lose 20 spots on the starting grid. With this format, if you make a mistake, you've got a second lap to make amends.
"You may not get the pole, and you may not go as fast as you could have on the first lap, but you're still going to minimize the position loss. You've probably get a little more indicative lineup of cars based off their speed, because last year there was a bit of randomness, if you made a mistake."
There was a real sense of urgency in Friday's first Cup practice as drivers vied to be part of the final qualifying group on Saturday afternoon. Ambrose ran 12 laps during the session and posted the fastest speed (94.049 mph) on his 12th lap.
With the five quickest drivers in first practice comprising the final qualifying group, that group (No. 8) will include Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya (93.890 mph), Casey Mears (93.535 mph), Kurt Busch (93.430 mph) and Jamie McMurray (93.421 mph).
Group No. 7 includes Greg Biffle, Brad Keselowski, defending race winner Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano. Series leader Jimmie Johnson, who spun during practice, will lead group No. 4 to the green flag.
Danica Patrick thought the combination of seven IndyCar starts at Sonoma and solid performances in NASCAR Nationwide Series road course races would help her in the NASCAR Sprint Cup car on Friday.
Instead, she fought an unruly No. 10 Chevrolet throughout practice.
"I had hoped that being here before would have made it a little better for me out there, but it just didn't," Patrick told reporters Friday between practices. "The car just didn't feel very good. It just feels like it's all over the place -- it's loose, it's tight, it's loose, it's tight.
"It just doesn't feel very settled, so I feel that we still have a lot of work to do."
Patrick was 31st fastest in opening practice, which puts her sixth in group No. 3 for Saturday's time trials, right behind her nemesis, Jacques Villeneuve, who dumped Patrick out of a top-five finish at Road America last year.