SONOMA — The good news for six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson: He broke the qualifying track record at Sonoma Raceway. The bad news? He ranked in the precise middle of the pack, with the 22nd fastest time during Saturday's first-round qualifying session.
The Sprint Cup's redesigned cars, with their taller rear spoilers, larger radiator pans and subsequent increased downforce, are setting a blistering pace. Sonoma is the 11th track to witness a new qualifying record this season, and it wasn't even close here.
Marcos Ambrose held the previous qualifying record of 95.262 mph, set in 2012. When the smoke had cleared Saturday, Jamie McMurray was holding the mark with an average speed of 96.350.
McMurray won the Sonoma pole for the second straight year, and the third time in his career. It's his first pole of 2014. McMurray will be followed by AJ Allmendinger, rookie Kyle Larson — winner of the K&N Pro Series West race Saturday afternoon — Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick in the 350, a race that has seen nine different winners in the past nine years.
Saturday's results were determined by the Sprint Cup's new qualifying format, which has multiple cars on the track simultaneously in the first round. At road courses and short tracks,the 12 fastest rides from that round then teed it up again to reshuffle the top dozen starting positions in Sunday's race.
McMurray's first qualifying lap wasn't fast enough to get him into the second round, so he had to take the track for a second try. He didn't like his chances at that point, but he put together a smooth lap that got him into the top 12.
"This knockout qualifying is just an emotional rollercoaster, from not making it into the top 12 and having to go back out and bump your way in, to then being on the pole," McMurray said. "There's a lot of highs and lows that go with it, and it's really cool for us to kind of get bumped out and then come back and sit on the pole."
Fan favorite Danica Patrick was among those to make the second round; she'll start 11th.
It was a strong qualifying session for Chip Ganassi Racing, which includes both McMurray and Larson. And it was strangely unfruitful for Hendrick Motorsports, which has won five consecutive races (split among three drivers) heading into Sonoma. None of Hendrick's four cars did better than 15th on Saturday. Today's race is scheduled for noon.