SONOMA, Calif. — Stats don’t always tell the best stories in racing.
Ask Jamie McMurray.
McMurray’s career average finish at Sonoma Raceway is 17.1, but he has been looking forward to Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 as a chance for a good finish or even his first Sprint Cup Series win since 2010.
Apparently, that was for good reason.
In the debut of NASCAR’s new group qualifying format for road courses, McMurray’s average lap speed of 94.986 mph was good enough to win the pole for Sunday’s race.
It’s McMurray’s first pole in 81 races dating to the March 2011 race at Martinsville, Va. He owns one previous pole at Sonoma (2007) and his previous best finish at the track was second in 2004.
“We were just able to put it all together. That is really cool,” said McMurray, whose previous best start this season was sixth at Bristol, Tenn.
“The race is really fun, it’s just that this place can get a little bit frustrating at the end of the race if they have a late-race restart. It’s always wild in Turn 4 and Turn 7. I have been on the good end of it, and I’ve been on the bad end of it.”
Stats also don’t tell the whole story of the progression of McMurray and the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing operation this season.
After posting a combined seven Top-10 finishes in the past two seasons, McMurray has three through 15 races this year.
He was ranked as high as 11th in the series standings this year through eight races — and appeared to have a chance at qualifying for the Chase for the Cup — until a string of bad finishes have dropped him to 21st entering Sunday’s race.
McMurray was running 10th at Richmond, Va., and dropped to 25th after a wild green-white-checkered restart. He was running 10th at Charlotte and had a radiator break. At Dover, he ran over debris, which put a hole in his radiator. Last week at Michigan, McMurray blew a tire late in the race.
Those poor results don’t illustrate how much the teams and its cars have improved this season, McMurray said.
“When you blow a right-front tire and you don’t feel like you did anything wrong, that is just bad luck. I feel like we have been really unlucky, but our cars have been really good,” he said.
“I tell you that because the morale on our team, not just the No. 1 team, but the No. 42 team, everybody is very excited about what we have going on right now. We feel like performance-wise we are really good.
“I think we are better than we were in 2010 when we were able to win all the races.”
Marcos Ambrose qualified second-fastest, Carl Edwards was third, Greg Biffle was fourth and last year’s race winner, Clint Bowyer, was fifth. Series points points leader Jimmie Johnson will line up 19th.
After qualifying, Ambrose’s team closely examined his No. 9 Ford after his engine shut off as he approached the green flag for his first qualifying lap. The engine quickly popped back on but left Ambrose with an uneasy feeling.
“The mystery of it cutting out was just as surprising when it came back to life,” Ambrose said.
th-fastest qualifying lap but was forced to get out of his car before the end of his five-minute group session when smoke began pouring out of his No. 56 Toyota.