By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
SONOMA, Calif. -- Those who were surprised that Jamie McMurray won the Coors Light pole for Sunday's Toyota Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway simply haven't been paying attention.
With a lap at 94.986 mph (75.422 seconds) in Saturday's time trials, McMurray edged pre-qualifying favorite Marcos Ambrose (94.924 mph) for the top spot in the first group-based qualifying format ever used in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.
Both McMurray and Ambrose qualified in the final five-car group (No. 8), with Ambrose posting his lap first and McMurray topping him shortly thereafter. The Coors Light pole award was McMurray's first of the season, his second at Sonoma and the ninth of his career.
The pole not only underscored McMurray's road course credentials but also highlighted the improved performance of the entire Earnhardt Ganassi Racing organization.
"I remember sitting in here a year ago with (teammate) Juan (Pablo Montoya) when we made the announcement that we were going to run the Indy Grand-Am race, and we talked about everything that was going on with making our cars better.
"They've just done an amazing job. Juan and I were talking about it (Friday) between practices. The cars don't necessarily feel better on the track, but the times are better in relation to everybody. Coming out here I was really confident, because every track we've been too we've had really good speed and we've run really well. We haven't necessarily been able to get the finishes in the last 10 percent of the race, but it hasn't really been anything that we've done wrong.
So I feel really good about our cars and just about any track we go to now."
Carl Edwards (94.779 mph) qualified third from group No. 5, followed by Greg Biffle (94.772 mph) and defending race winner Clint Bowyer (94.737 mph). Series leader Jimmie Johnson will start 19th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 26th and Danica Patrick 31st.
Ambrose, who set the track record of 95.262 mph last year, said his car lost power coming to the green flag to start his first qualifying lap.
"In our case, the motor quit running coming to the green flag, so I lost all my momentum coming to the green flag," Ambrose said. "I thought about bailing out of that lap and trying to roll around for a second lap, but I wasn't sure about engine temperatures and the tires ... but I just went for it.
"I pretty much lost my mind there. I was really mad ... but it was good enough to get the front row, and I'm proud of that, but I'm disappointed, obviously, that we didn't get the pole."
The new group-based qualifying format produced on-track issues almost immediately. Roughly two minutes into the session for group No. 1, Victor Gonzalez Jr. went off course in Turn 10 while running behind David Stremme, who was slow out of the gate to start the session.
Gonzalez slammed into the tire barrier, ripping the left front fender of his No. 36 Chevrolet. The accident stopped the clock on the session, which featured a five-minute allotment for each group. Qualifying resumed after track clean-up.