SONOMA, Calif. — As Jamie McMurray turned a corner on the season with a string of solid finishes, he picked Sonoma Raceway as an upcoming track he was looking forward to racing.
It seemed like a strange selection considering McMurray has just one top-10 finish at Sonoma in 10 career starts.
But he showed his comfort level on the 1.99-mile road course Saturday with a surprise pole-winning run. He topped Marcos Ambrose, a race favorite, with a lap at 94.986 mph.
"I felt like I've always raced really well here," McMurray said of choosing Sonoma as a place he thought he could win this year.
"For me, the last restarts have really got me. When you have a restart at this track, guys go from top five to 30th in about 20 seconds. It can be a track that if you have a caution at the end, you can lose a lot."
It was McMurray's ninth career Sprint Cup pole, but first of the year. He also won the pole at Sonoma in 2007.
Ambrose wound up second with a lap at 94.924 in NASCAR's first use of the group qualifying format. Both Ambrose and McMurray were together in the final group, and Ambrose initially had the pole position. But McMurray snatched it away, and Ambrose made a second attempt to grab it back but came up just short.
"The motor quit running coming to the green flag, so I lost all of my momentum coming to the green flag," Ambrose said. "I thought about just bailing out of that lap and trying to roll around for a second lap, but I wasn't sure about engine temperatures and the tires go away so fast. I didn't know if I had already stressed them out and if I could have made up time, so I just went for it."
It's not the first engine issue Ambrose has had at Sonoma: He was dominating the race in 2010 and leading under caution when he turned his engine off and lost the race. So he was furious when an engine problem spoiled what he thought would be a pole-winning run for Sunday's race.
"I pretty much lost my mind there and was really mad and just had to get my composure back to finish the lap off," he said. "It was good enough for the front row, so I'm proud of that but disappointed obviously that we didn't get the pole position."
Carl Edwards qualified third and was followed by teammate Greg Biffle as Ford drivers took three of the first four spots.
Defending race winner Clint Bowyer qualified fifth and was followed by Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano. Kyle Busch was ninth, and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top 10.
At Elkhart Lake, Wis., AJ Allmendinger slid past Justin Allgaier with seven laps to go, then defended his lead through a late restart and a pair of nerve-testing green-white-checkered overtime finishes to win at Road America.
For Allmendinger, it was another step toward rebuilding his racing career after sitting out part of last season because of a violation of NASCAR's substance-abuse policy. It also was a return to victory lane at Road America for Allmendinger, who won at the four-mile road course in Central Wisconsin in the Champ Car Series in 2006.
Allgaier finished second, followed by Parker Kligerman, Owen Kelly and Sam Hornish Jr.
Billy Johnson led on a restart with eight to go, but he slid wide in Turn 5 and was passed by Allgaier and Allmendinger. Allmendinger then made the decisive move one lap later, snatching the lead from Allgaier at the top of the hill in Turn 6.
He'd have to defend his lead on three more restarts, fending off a charge from Allgaier with three laps to go and then facing two green-white-checkered finishes — NASCAR's version of overtime.
Allmendinger once again took the lead, only to watch another caution come out for Michael Annett's accident to trigger a second overtime.
With drivers facing concerns about having enough fuel left on the second green-white-checkered restart, Allmendinger held on again to take the checkered flag and stop in Turn 5 to celebrate in front of the fans.
At Newton, Iowa, IndyCar Series leader Helio Castroneves' pole-winning news conference lasted barely a minute and ranked among the more sheepish in recent history.
Castroneves knew he wasn't going to remain on the front row for long.
Castroneves claimed the pole for Sunday's race at Iowa Speedway, but he will start 11th after an unapproved engine change.
Still, it wasn't all bad news for Castroneves or Penske — which claimed its third pole in seven Iowa races.
Penske teammate Will Power will start first, and Castroneves still earned nine championship points by winning the top heat. Castroneves also extended his lead over defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay to 25 points in the process.
James Hinchcliffe will start second, followed by Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon and Ed Carpenter.