Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers top first Sprint Cup practice at Sonoma

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Three former Sonoma winners topped the first four positions on the speed chart in Friday’s first NASCAR Sprint Cup practice for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

Kurt Busch, who won the 2011 race, led the field with a top lap of 95.470 mph (at 75.039 seconds).

“I think the car unloaded really good,” Busch told Fox Sports 1. “It’s from all the testing we did. We prepared with two road course tests. Today, we saw three seconds of dropoff and that puts it in the category is if this is a three-stop race or a two-stop race. The last two years, I’ve done well with a two-stop strategy. … I think we’ll (also) see a new track record in qualifying (on Saturday).”

Clint Bowyer, who won there in 2012, was second-fastest at 95.421 mph, followed by Brian Vickers (95.080 mph), last year’s race winner Martin Truex Jr. (94.478) and rookie and northern California native Kyle Larson (94.825).

Sixth was Marcos Ambrose (94.714), who is being picked by many to win Sunday’s race, even though he has never won at Sonoma before. Ambrose does have two road course race wins at Watkins Glen in New York.

Seventh- through 10th-fastest in the first practice were Dale Earnhardt Jr. (94.707), Paul Menard (84.625), two-time Sonoma winner Tony Stewart (94.553) and Carl Edwards (94.539).

Five-time Sonoma winner and current Sprint Cup points leader Jeff Gordon was 11th-fastest (94.395), followed by Joey Logano (94.364), Greg Biffle (94.344), Jamie McMurray (94.159) and Kasey Kahne (94.113).

Aric Almirola was 16th-fastest (94.096), followed by Ryan Newman (94.082), Bay area native AJ Allmendinger (94.077), Kevin Harvick (94.001) and Brad Keselowski (93.943).

Other performances of note:

* Jimmie Johnson, who has won three of the last four races including this past Sunday’s event at Michigan, was 21st fastest at 93.890 mph.

* Kyle Busch was a surprisingly slow 24th (93.673).

* Second-ranked Matt Kenseth was 25th-fastest (93.588).

* Danica Patrick was 32nd (92.806).

* Landon Cassill was the slowest of the 42 drivers who took practice laps around the track (90.717 mph).

The second practice session is set to begin at 6:30 pm ET/3:30 pm PT.

Qualifying takes place Saturday at 1:40 pm ET/10:40 am PT.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Lewis Hamilton comes home to Mercedes factory after fourth title

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On Monday, the Formula 1 schedule finally allowed teams to be in Europe before heading to Abu Dhabi for this weekend’s season finale.

And as such, that provided a window for now four-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton to return to the Mercedes AMG Petronas factories in Brackley and Brixworth to be celebrated for taking the driver’s title, as Hamilton an Valtteri Bottas delivered Mercedes its fourth straight constructor’s title.

Hamilton was at Brixworth, the home ofΒ Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains (HPP) and its highly successful Mercedes-Benz Power Units first before heading to Brackley, where he was welcomed with a “guard of honor” as the entire team came out to greet him.

The champion was overwhelmed at the response and the welcome.

“This a very emotional day. I was not expecting this, thanks everyone for the warm welcome,” he said. “Today is something that I will never forget, turning up at the front gate of the factory and seeing everyone out on the street to welcome me – I’m blown away.

“This has been an incredible year, it’s been an incredible journey together. There’s a huge amount of respect and appreciation I have for everyone. I’ve been in the sport for a long time now, but to see the work ethic in Brixworth and Brackley really inspires me. Every time I come around, I see everyone operating at 100%, which encourages me to bring my best performance.

“Thank you all for helping me achieve my dreams, it would not have been possible without you. This is the best championship year, because we’ve been fighting another team and because we’ve had the difficulties and challenges we’ve had – that just makes it so much greater.”

A social roundup of images and videos are below, all via Hamilton and the Mercedes team on social media.