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.

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IndyCar’s season finale at St. Pete approved to have 20,000 fans

IndyCar St. Pete fans
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The NTT IndyCar Series’ season finale will be permitted up to 20,000 fans, making the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg possibly the circuit’s most well-attended race of 2020. The race originally was scheduled as the season opener before being moved to Oct. 25 because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

IndyCar has enjoyed limited crowds at Road America, Iowa Speedway, Gateway, Mid-Ohio and this weekend’s doubleheader races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, which could have up to 10,000 fans in attendance. That had been the largest maximum grandstand crowd for an IndyCar race this season.

At a St. Petersburg city council meeting Thursday, Mayor Rick Kriseman approved plans by race organizers Green Savoree Racing Promotions to hold the Oct. 23-25 weekend for the IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Pete with 20,000 fans who would follow health and safety protocols that include mandatory temperature checks and masks.

 “My thanks to Green Savoree Racing Promotions and IndyCar for their flexibility and resilience during this challenging time,” Kriseman said in a release. “I know that everyone is excited to get back on the track in St. Pete. I can’t wait for Oct. 23rd. I know everyone will embrace this race the St. Pete way, adhering to the COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Let’s have some great racing in the Sunshine City.”

Paddock and the pit lane will remain closed to spectators, and social distancing of at least 6 feet will be observed on site.

“Our entire team greatly appreciates the patience and understanding of our ticket holders as we worked through this process with Mayor Kriseman, City Council and local health officials,” Kim Green, co-owner, chairman and CEO of Green Savoree Promotions. “It’s important for everyone who attends to read and follow all the COVID-19 protocols to contribute to a fun, safe and successful event for us all.”

“The ongoing guidance and support of Mayor Kriseman, City Council, and the City of St. Petersburg’s event team have been phenomenal,” said Kevin Savoree, co-owner, president and COO of Green Savoree Promotions. “We also would not be in this position to move this spring tradition to fall without Firestone’s unwavering commitment and dedication. It’s going to be a terrific weekend again in downtown St. Pete in three weeks featuring world-class racing from INDYCAR.”