Jamie McMurray claims 2nd consecutive Sonoma pole

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Last year in qualifying at Sonoma Raceway, Jamie McMurray put together a late flyer to snatch the pole from Marcos Ambrose.

Today in Northern California, he did it again. This time, A.J. Allmendinger was the victim as McMurray posted a lap of 74.354 seconds in the waning moments to capture pole for tomorrow’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.

“I was really shocked that I could run faster on our third run,” McMurray told PRN Radio.

“We went faster every time we went out. We made a couple of changes to the car, and I’m not sure where the speed came from. But it was a really good lap.

“The key here is to get off [Turns] 11 and [then] 7 with the drive, and I could never really get wide open in any of those in first, second or third gear off of those corners. But we kind of had all the rest of it down.”

As for tomorrow’s race, McMurray believes that there will be a major difference compared to Sonoma races of years gone by.

“I think you’re going to see more pit stops when the cautions come out,” he said. “Tires are so important, more important than ever.

“Normally at a road course, you run [the strategy] backwards and everyone pits 10 laps before they can make it on fuel hoping they can get some cautions. But I think you’ll see guys put [more] tires on tomorrow, so it should be a good race.”

McMurray’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing, rookie Kyle Larson, had a strong effort in qualifying and will line up on the inside of Row 2.

Larson will get additional track time today by competing in the K&N Pro Series West race, joining fellow Cup racers Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier and Austin Dillon.

Carl Edwards will start along side Larson in Row 2, followed by Stewart Haas teammates Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick in Row 3. Ryan Newman and Brian Vickers are in Row 4, and Paul Menard and Joey Logano will roll off from Row 5.

Also having solid qualifying days were Danica Patrick and Casey Mears, who are set for Row 6 on the grid.

As for Hendrick Motorsports, which has won the last five Sprint Cup points races, they’ll have some work to do in order to push that hot streak to six.

All four HMS drivers failed to make the final round: California native Jeff Gordon qualified 15th, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 17th, Michigan winner Jimmie Johnson in 22nd, and Kasey Kahne in 30th.

“We pride ourselves on being good at the road courses especially at Sonoma, and [being] six-hundredths of a second from making it [to the final round] is disappointing,” Gordon said.

“But I think the bigger disappointment for us is how many guys went out and were so much faster the second time out – and we didn’t pick up. That’s a bit of a concern. Obviously, we’ll talk to our teammates and see what they were dealing with as well.”

Earnhardt appeared to blame his failure to advance from the first round on Tomy Drissi, one of the road course “ringers” in this weekend’s race:

As for Johnson, it’s his worst starting spot at Sonoma since the 2007 race (started 42nd, finished 17th).

Defending Sonoma winner Martin Truex Jr. qualified in 18th position, while a trio of NASCAR’s best road racers – Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose and Clint Bowyer – shall start in mid pack.

Stewart, Ambrose, and Bowyer are all searching for a win that will get them into the Chase, but will have to come from 21st, 23rd, and 25th respectively.

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES AT SONOMA – STARTING LINEUP
Toyota/Save Mart 350
1. Jamie McMurray (74.354 seconds, 96.350 mph)
2. A.J. Allmendinger
3. Kyle Larson
4. Carl Edwards
5. Kurt Busch
6. Kevin Harvick
7. Ryan Newman
8. Brian Vickers
9. Paul Menard
10. Joey Logano
11. Danica Patrick
12. Casey Mears
13. Brad Keselowski
14. Matt Kenseth
15. Jeff Gordon
16. Denny Hamlin
17. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
18. Martin Truex Jr.
19. Greg Biffle
20. Kyle Busch
21. Tony Stewart
22. Jimmie Johnson
23. Marcos Ambrose
24. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
25. Clint Bowyer
26. Austin Dillon
27. David Gilliland
28. Michael McDowell
29. Aric Almirola
30. Kasey Kahne
31. David Ragan
32. Cole Whitt
33. Josh Wise
34. Ryan Truex
35. Justin Allgaier
36. Alex Kennedy
37. Timmy Hill
38. Alex Bowman
39. David Mayhew
40. Reed Sorenson
41. Boris Said
42. Michael Annett
43. Tomy Drissi

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.