SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — AJ Allmendinger, developing as the top driver on road courses, won the pole for Sunday’s race at winding Sonoma Raceway.
Allmendinger earned the top starting spot during Saturday’s knockout qualifying with a lap 96.310 mph around the 10-turn, 1.99-mile course. It’s the first pole for JTG Daugherty Racing, which earned its first berth in NASCAR’s championship race last year when Allmendinger won on the Watkins Glen road course.
That puts the pressure on Allmendinger, who knows the races at Sonoma and in August at Watkins Glen are likely his best chances to earn a spot in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
The native of Las Gatos, a little over an hour away from the Sonoma track, wasn’t sure how he’d feel heading into Sunday’s race.
“I haven’t grown up very well on not putting a lot of pressure on myself,” Allmendinger said. “We knew that if we go do our job and if I do my job (Sunday), and we have solid pit stops, and we just take care of business, at the end we should give ourselves a chance. That’s all we can ask for.”
Kurt Busch will start second after his qualifying lap was interrupted when younger brother, Kyle, spun in Turn 10 to bring out a red flag with 7:03 left in the final 10-minute session. The spin also interrupted the lap for Kyle Larson, who was fastest on the day in the first round of qualifying.
Matt Kenseth qualified third and was surprised with the result after a long day of practice Friday. Kenseth has just six career top-10 finishes in 30 starts on NASCAR’s road courses.
“Yeah, we kind of overachieved,” Kenseth said about qualifying.
Kenseth was followed by Larson and five-time Sonoma winner Jeff Gordon.
Gordon, who began his racing career in Northern California, has been feted the past week in his final race at his home track. The four-time champion is retiring at the end of the year.
He spent last Saturday visiting the first track he ever raced at in Rio Linda, then returned to his middle school in Vallejo for a question and answer session with students. When he arrived at the track on Friday, Sonoma President Steve Page presented him with a Melchior — an 18-liter bottle of wine — engraved with “Hometown Hero,” his car and the dates of his five wins.
“I love coming out here, not just because it’s home. It is just so many things — the weather, the wine country, family and I love this racetrack,” Gordon said. “I’m thrilled that I’ve had the opportunity to win here five times. I’m thrilled to be here this weekend for the final time behind the wheel.
“It has already been a very special, memorable one.”
Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart, Casey Mears, David Ragan and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 10.
For Stewart, a seven-time winner on NASCAR’s two road courses, the qualifying effort was a vast improvement from his struggles a day earlier in a pair of practice sessions. And, he felt he could have gotten more out of his qualifying lap.
“It was good, it wasn’t as good as our second run was,” he said. “I was really happy with our second run. I just over drove a couple of the corners trying to make up time to try to make a pole run out of it. Compared to where we were (Friday) I was really happy with where we ended up.”
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