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

Hamilton endures ‘difficult’ Russia F1 practice, impressed by Ferrari

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Lewis Hamilton was left disappointed by a “difficult” day of Formula 1 practice in Russia on Friday for Mercedes as Ferrari stole a march on the field.

Hamilton arrived in Sochi looking to take his third win in Russia and claw back the championship lead after falling seven points behind Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in the standings.

The Briton was left to settle for fourth place in the final timesheets in FP2 as Mercedes struggled to match Ferrari’s one-lap pace, finishing over half a second back from Vettel in P1.

“Bit of a difficult day for us,” Hamilton admitted. “We managed to complete everything that we needed to do on our runs, but in terms of the balance of the car, the Ferrari seemed very, very fast on the long runs.

“So we need to work out how we can improve our pace. But there’s still everything to play for. The tires feel very peaky, so it’s easy to drop out of the window of performance, but when they’re working they seem to be good.”

Teammate Valtteri Bottas finished third-fastest in FP2 for Mercedes, and said the team had work to do overnight to ensure it could get the maximum out of the ultra-soft tire for qualifying.

“It’s been an interesting day. It’s a very different situation here with the asphalt and the temperatures compared to what we experienced in Bahrain,” Bottas said.

“We were learning about the tires on long runs and short runs and it seems like over one lap we still have work to do to get the maximum out of the ultra-soft tire – that’s our focus tonight. But we can’t forget how important the race is.

“We have started the weekend in the right way. The car feels good and the balance is there. A good start but we definitely need to work hard to find some lap time for qualifying.”

Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 8am ET on Saturday.

Stoffel Vandoorne set for 15-place F1 grid drop in Sochi

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Stoffel Vandoorne is set to receive a 15-place grid penalty for this weekend’s Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix after exceeding the number of permitted power units components for the season.

McLaren’s problems with engine supplier Honda have been well-documented, with a revision of the design of the power unit by the Japanese manufacturer backfiring to create further reliability and performance issues.

Vandoorne has taken the brunt of the issues in 2017, failing to score a point and recording just one classified finish – P13 in Australia, two laps down on the lead car – as well as being forced to change a number of components on his power unit.

Drivers are only permitted to use four of each power unit component across the course of the season before triggering a penalty, but Vandoorne’s usage has been so high that he is set to receive a grid drop for the Russian Grand Prix – only the fourth round of the season.

By taking an all-new power unit for the event in Sochi, Vandoorne has moved onto his fifth MGU-H and fifth turbocharger of the year, combining for a 15-place grid penalty on Sunday.

For every other ‘fifth’ component Vandoorne takes this season, he will receive another five-place grid drop. His first ‘sixth’ component will be worth 10 places; every remaining ‘sixth’ is five places; his first ‘seventh’ is 10 places and so on.

Ferrari dominates Russian GP second free practice

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Once Pirelli’s softest compound, the ultrasoft tires, came out to play in second free practice for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom, Scuderia Ferrari dropped the hammer compared to Mercedes AMG Petronas.

Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen ran at 1:34.120 and 1:34.383, respectively, in the pair of SF70H chassis – which easily eclipsed the Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. This followed Raikkonen’s leading FP1 this morning.

It’s only practice but the thinking going into the race weekend was with a couple long straights, it would play to Mercedes’ strengths and its top-end speed. But Ferrari’s fired a warning salvo into that thinking in this session.

Bottas and Hamilton were six and seven tenths adrift on the same ultrasoft tires, before long runs commenced for the final 35 to 40 or so minutes of the 90-minute free practice. The Russian Grand Prix is expected to be a one-stop race.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were next, far off the top four and far ahead of the midfield. Verstappen’s session ended early inside of 20 minutes, as he parked his car with an apparent loss of power just before pit lane.

Williams’ Felipe Massa, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen and Force India’s Sergio Perez – making it four teams in as many positions from seventh through 10th in the crowded midfield. In fact while 1.790 seconds covered first to sixth, just 1.18 seconds covered seventh to 18th, covering all remaining teams!

Romain Grosjean, who tries new Carbon Industrie brakes this week, made several radio transmissions noting he wasn’t yet satisfied with the new supplier. There’s still been a lot of brake dust released from the fronts on both his and Magnussen’s car.

Meanwhile further down the grid, McLaren Honda has made yet another power unit change to Stoffel Vandoorne’s car, which cost him the opening minutes of the session. This will resign the Belgian to his fifth turbocharger and MGU-H of the season, and see him saddled with a grid penalty.

FP3 is next up, streaming online live on Saturday morning from 5 a.m. ET. Qualifying commences at 8 a.m. ET live on CNBC.

Raikkonen leads topsy turvy first free practice session in Russia

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Kimi Raikkonen has topped the timesheets in the first 90-minute free practice session for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, although times are never entirely representative in this first running of the weekend on the notoriously low-grip to start Sochi Autodrom.

Naturally then it took longer for the fastest times to come in. Raikkonen posted a 1:36.074 on Pirelli’s supersoft tires, with just under half an hour remaining, which eclipsed the pair of Mercedes AMG Petronas entries of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton, who were 0.045 of a second and 0.607 of a second behind, respectively.

Vettel was fifth without really getting a proper lap in – more than one second back of his not-under-fire but perhaps under-duress teammate – just behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in fourth.

This marks the last race that Verstappen will be racing as a member of Red Bull Racing for the first time, as it marks the one-year anniversary since local hero Daniil Kvyat’s first-lap nightmare here last year. The Toro Rosso driver in his special edition “torpedo” helmet he’s made this weekend clocked in 11th.

Raikkonen’s fastest time was more than two seconds up on FP1’s fastest time last year, and times will only get quicker the rest of the weekend.

Both Hamilton and Vettel got away with “moments” during the session. Early on, Hamilton had had a quick moment over the Turn 2 curbs but landed without damage. In the final 15 minutes Vettel spun as well at Turn 17, but again without hitting anything. Hamilton then ran wide at the exit of Turn 14, looping his car, but stopping it before it hit the barriers.

Meanwhile Ferrari stated both Vettel and Raikkonen are using new turbochargers this race, and didn’t cite any potential reliability concerns as a reason why.

Raikkonen’s overall best time looked set to be bettered before the first red and only flag of the session occurred in a fairly abnormal manner.

With less than 25 minutes to go in the session, a bizarre incident occurred as Esteban Ocon’s engine cover off the back of his Force India Mercedes popped off as he closed his DRS on the run to Turn 2. Ocon limped the wounded Force India back to the pit lane with no additional damage but it put the session under a red flag, which thus provided a green flag for Twitter snark.

Meanwhile the young Frenchman wasn’t the only driver with issues this session. Stoffel Vandoorne reported in a loss of power to his Honda-powered McLaren inside the final 10 minutes of the session; the Belgian has had woeful luck of late with power units, notably at Bahrain, and the team was hopeful it had made a step forward in the post-Grand Prix test there. A grid penalty would loom with another power unit change.

To start the session, Renault test driver Sergey Sirotkin, in a run-out in his home Grand Prix weekend, didn’t even get to complete a timed lap as he stopped on the backside of the circuit with a mechanical issue. Reboot attempts failed and left him without a lap, same as the driver he was filling in for in Nico Hulkenberg, who will be back in for FP2.

Speaking of, FP2 comes up live at 8 a.m. ET, 5 a.m. PT on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App.

Times are below: