Jamie McMurray on pole for Sprint Cup at Sonoma

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As part of the final group of qualifiers Saturday at Sonoma Raceway, Jamie McMurray came through with a clutch lap of 75.422 seconds around the serpentine California circuit to win pole for tomorrow’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 ahead of one of NASCAR’s top road racers, Marcos Ambrose.

McMurray notched his fast lap with three minutes remaining in his group’s five-minute run around Sonoma, holding off Ambrose for his first Sprint Cup pole position since Martinsville in the spring of 2011. The Roush Fenway Racing duo of Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle will make up Row 2, followed by defending race winner Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth in Row 3.

“You base your lap first off on how it feels and how much rev limiter you hit with your shifting, and I didn’t feel like I hit as much rev limiter as I did yesterday when we only ran a [75.9-second lap],” McMurray told SPEED Channel afterwards. “I wasn’t sure, but it’s a really good day.

“…This race, a lot of times, comes down to the last restart and not getting in trouble on that last restart, so we’ll just keep digging and fight all day. I think our car will have enough speed [in the race], and it’ll just be about not making mistakes.”

Ambrose, who collected his second front row start of the season, had to deal with a momentary loss of power on his car as he attempted to secure the pole for himself.

“We were just getting up to speed there, just rolled around a lap while trying to save tires – tires here are critical,” Ambrose explained on SPEED. “I hammered down coming off Turn 12 and the engine just cut off and I lost all momentum getting to the green. It came back, but I lost at least two or three tenths or so.”

Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon will round out the Top 10 on the grid. Other notables in qualifying include championship leader Jimmie Johnson in 19th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 26th and Danica Patrick in 31st for her first stock car start at Sonoma.

Today marked the Sprint Cup debut for the group qualifying format on road courses, in which cars go out in groups of five or six cars and get five minutes of green flag racing to set times; the fastest time is their lap of record on the grid.

NHRA: Antron Brown on verge of earning 50th career Top Fuel win this weekend at Phoenix

Photo courtesy Toyota Racing
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When you’re used to winning championships – like three in the previous five seasons – any other season finish is disappointing.

That’s kind of how NHRA Top Fuel dragster driver Antron Brown looked at his fourth-place showing in the 2017 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

“At the end of the day, we had a very competitive season last year and made it to 10 final rounds,” Brown said. “But we got into the Countdown (NHRA’s six-race playoffs) and our timing was off.

“We struggled with a lot of problems we don’t usually have. Now it’s time for a new chapter for this team and time to get better. This is a new beginning for us and it’s going to be fun and exciting and we’re coming after them.”

Antron Brown hugs the NHRA Top Fuel championship trophy after winning it in 2016. (Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire)

Brown had a good start to 2018, reaching the semifinals before losing to Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher in the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

“We had a great performance at Pomona and I couldn’t be more proud of what our Matco/Toyota guys did,” Brown said. “Now we are going to Phoenix where we’ve won three times (2009, 2012 and 2014, and was runner-up in 2011) and we’ll just try to hit it hard and get a fourth.”

Next up on the NHRA 24-race national event circuit is the second race of the season, this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix (Chandler, Arizona).

Brown has definite plans to make it four wins in Phoenix. And if he does that Sunday, he’ll set a significant career milestone: it would be his 50th career win driving a Top Fueler and the 66th win overall (he won 16 races in Pro Stock Motorcycle before shifting from two to four wheels).

In so doing, Brown would become only the fourth Top Fuel driver in NHRA history to hit the 50-win mark. The others are Tony Schumacher (83), Larry Dixon (62) and Joe Amato (52).

This will be the second time Brown has been racing in Phoenix this month. He was part of the preseason test there for Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock cars a week before the season began.

“Testing went really well there,” said Brown, leaving him optimistic that he can reach victory circle once again. “I love going back to Phoenix.”

Brown has been the most dominant driver in NHRA Top Fuel competition since 2012, winning more than twice the number of races (34) than the next most successful Top Fuel driver (16 by Schumacher) in that time period.

He also has a 71 percent overall win percentage, which exceeds both eight-time Top Fuel champ Schumacher and 16-time Funny Car champ John Force.

“I’m just pumped up, feeling like we’ve got some unfinished business from last year,” Brown said. “We had a good outing but didn’t close the deal, so this year, we’re looking forward to getting back there and getting off to a great start.”

NOTES: Brown will serve as honorary pace car driver for the March 4th Pennzoil 400 NASCAR Cup race at Las Vegas. He’ll be joined by teammates Matt Hagan and Leah Pritchett in a weekend full of activities that they’ll all be involved in.

“I’m really excited,” Brown said. “It’s going to be my first experience as a pace car driver, and I’m just super stoked to go out there and drive the Camry pace car for Pennzoil and start those NASCAR boys off the right way. Throttle down, pedal to the metal. I just want them to get off to a great start.”

Brown has won four times at The Strip, the drag strip adjacent to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I couldn’t be more excited to have the opportunity,” he said. “It’s an honor to be out there with such talented drivers, and I know I’m going to really enjoy watching our NASCAR counterparts.”

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