SONOMA, Calif. — Jamie McMurray took the time to help rookie teammate Kyle Larson learn the road course at Sonoma Raceway.
The payoff for working together was two Chip Ganassi Racing cars in the top three of the starting field of Sunday’s race.
McMurray won the pole for Sunday’s race with a track record lap that bumped AJ Allmendinger from the top starting spot, and Larson qualified a surprising third.
Allmendinger seemed to have the pole locked down until McMurray turned a lap at 96.350 mph in the final minute of Saturday’s qualifying session. It broke the record of 95.262 mph set by Marcos Ambrose in 2012.
“Great lap, I am so excited,” McMurray said. “I thought our car in race trim was really good, really good on the long runs. We’re not going to change a whole lot, I feel really good about it.”
It’s the first pole of the season for McMurray, 10th of his career, and third at Sonoma. McMurray also started from the pole last year but finished 25th.
He called the qualifying session stressful under NASCAR’s new knockout format.
McMurray was on the verge of being eliminated in the first of the two rounds, but he went out for one last lap to advance into the top 12. Then he bumped Allmendinger as the clock wound down on the final 10-minute session.
“I think everybody in the garage area has been stressed out about trying to get that clean lap in qualifying all weekend long,” McMurray said. “This knockout qualifying is just an emotional roller-coaster. There’s a lot of highs and lows with it.”
Allmendinger wound up second in a race he believes he can win. He was out of the Sprint Cup Series a year ago because of a failed random NASCAR drug test in 2012, so while the series was racing at Sonoma, Allmendinger was in the Nationwide Series race at Road America.
He delivered in the Wisconsin race for his first career victory and found his way back into a full-time ride in Cup. He wasn’t disappointed after McMurray bumped him from the pole, but it eyeing another win.
“We were in position to have (the pole), so it could be a lot worse,” Allmendinger said. “It sucks when you are that close, but you know what? Jamie put in a heck of a lap. We’ve got a clean view of the track when we go green and we’re going to have some fun tomorrow. We’ve got a pretty good shot to win this thing.”
In a surprise, McMurray’s rookie teammate Kyle Larson was third to give Chip Ganassi Racing two cars in the top three. Larson doesn’t have a ton of road course experience, and the rookie is admittedly still learning how to shift.
Larson, who replaced road course specialist Juan Pablo Montoya in the Ganassi entry, seemed surprised by his run.
“It would be interesting to see what Juan could have done today in my car because I don’t feel I’m that good on road courses,” Larson said. “I’ve never raced here before. I really rely on McMurray — I sat in the lounge with him for 15 or 20 minutes, and he just went through every corner with me and tried to give me as much information as I needed.
Carl Edwards was fourth and followed by Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman. The rest of the top 12 included Brian Vickers, Paul Menard, Joey Logano, Danica Patrick and Casey Mears. Patrick has now advanced into the final round of qualifying five times this season.
“We would have liked it to be better, but we’ll take it,” Patrick said.
Hendrick Motorsports goes into Sunday’s race looking to extend its five-race winning streak, but its drivers will have to come from deep in the field to make it six straight. Jeff Gordon, the all-time winner at Sonoma with five victories, was the highest-qualifying Hendrick driver at 15th.
“We pride ourselves on being good on the road courses, especially here at Sonoma,” Gordon said. “Obviously we will talk to our teammates, and see what they were dealing with as well. Very disappointed to not have any Hendrick cars in the top-12.”
Jimmie Johnson, winner of three of the last four races, qualified 22nd. It’s his lowest starting spot at Sonoma since 2007.
Failing to advance in the final group of 12 in qualifying were road course favorites Tony Stewart, the only Stewart-Haas Racing driver not to make it into the final group, as well as Ambrose and defending race winner Martin Truex Jr.