Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer was fastest at Sonoma Raceway on Friday, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series began preparations for the first of its two road course outings in the 2015 season.
CLICK: Full Friday practice times from Sonoma Raceway.
In the first practice of the day, Bowyer topped the times with what proved to be the fastest lap of anyone all day clocking in at 74.979s (95.547mph) on the two-mile, ten-turn road course, putting him 0.180s ahead of AJ Allmendinger in the JTG Daugherty Racing #47 with both men going to the top late in the two-hour session. Also featuring in an unusual top five were Sam Hornish Jr. (Richard Petty Motorsports), Danica Patrick (Stewart-Haas Racing) and Jamie McMurray (Chip Ganassi Racing).
Last year's Sonoma winner Carl Edwards was strong early in the session but ended up being pushed down the standings by the late improvements of others and finished in tenth place with his best lap in the Joe Gibbs Racing #19 clocking in at 75.812s (94.497mph). The all-time most wins holder with five visits to victory lane at Sonoma, Hendrick Motorsports Jeff Gordon, was 15th fastest in the #24.
Adjusting to the unfamiliar twists and turns of a road course for the first time in 2015 meant that more than few drivers found themselves struggling during the extended practice. Aric Almirola and Alex Kennedy both had their moments, while Germain Racing's Casey Mears stalled on track with 30 minutes left in the session which necessitated a caution to retrieve the #13.
The later 85-minute second session on Friday was controlled by two JGR cars, with Kyle Busch going to the top of the timesheets with a lap of 74.489s (96.175mph) with his team mate Carl Edwards second-fastest just 0.113s off Busch's time.
"This is just pure driving," said Edwards, clearly a convert to road course events in recent years and proving increasingly adept at winning them, too. "This is as good as it gets. If we could make all of the races such that you had to drive the cars like this, it would be a blast. It's a really good time. It's the most fun race of the year to me.
"We get to drive these race cars for really 90 percent of the lap you're doing something," he explained. "You're sliding the car around, you're shifting, you're choosing your line – the braking is tough. You're trying to manage the grip on the race track.
"The thing that really stands out here is just the grip level," he noted. "There is so little grip relative to many of the places we race. There are so many opportunities to make mistakes that it probably makes it or there are probably more errors in this event than any of the other events so maybe there is just more opportunity for guys to slip up or get a pass.
"It's such a tough race to get everything right. It's not always the fastest car wins, it's the guy with the right strategy, with a little bit of luck, the cautions have to fall his way plus you have to be fast. It's a tough race, but there's nothing saying we couldn't win this one and win it the next few years."
Notably the Sonoma event hasn't seen a repeat winner in the last decade, but that's not putting the defending race champion off in the slightest: "Those stats, they don't mean anything once the green flag drops," Edwards inisted. "It's crazy out there. That last restart, I've started up front, I've started 10th and 12th and 15th and it's a full melee, it's crazy. A lot can happen and maybe that's why you get the different winners just wild things happen here."
Kyle's brother Kurt was third fastest in the second session, with Bowyer dropping back slightly from his earlier heights but still looking strong in fourth place ahead of Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr., who finished just ahead of a brace of Hendrick cars consisting of Gordon and Kasey Kahne. Having finished third fastest in the earlier session, Hornish continued to look a significant threat with eighth place in the final practice timings.
"I've had speed here each time I've been here, but it seems like I've always been in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Hornish. "I've had a lot of speed on the road courses the last few years. The last Cup start I had on a road course we finished fifth, so I'm pretty happy with the fact of how I've run lately on the road courses in stock cars. A lot of it has been Xfinity, but I still feel like you do the right things you can get the job done.
"I feel like we almost have to have the same amount of things go right here for it to be able to happen because we can get there and lead a bunch of laps, but if somebody slips a little bit in the braking zone and bumps into you, you go from winning the race to finishing 16th. A lot of things can happen here.
"You usually get restarts towards the end of the race and it's more like Martinsville than it is like Watkins Glen, so I feel like it does present us a good opportunity," he added. "But at the same time I feel like 90 percent of the places that we go if we hit the same amount of things right there that we do here, we have just as good of a chance to get a top-five finish and maybe a win."
While there were no serious incidents in the session, there was a caution ten minutes from the end when Michael Annett stalled in the HScott Motorsports #46 Chevy and needed retrieval.
Drivers won't have any more time to dial in their cars now before qualifying for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 which takes place on Saturday afternoon, with the 110-lap, 218.9-mile race itself set to get the green flag on Sunday at 12noon local time (8pm BST).
See full Friday practice times from Sonoma Raceway.