NASCAR: Live from Sonoma

Qualifying format should be a kick

SONOMA, Calif. -- Now this is the good life. The first road race of the season in a beautiful setting among the hills of the California wine country.

It's one of the most unique events on the Sprint Cup schedule and a weekend almost everyone in the sport looks forward to, except those drivers who find road racing a tougher challenge than trying to fold a fitted sheet.

The unique aspect this time includes a rare qualifying format that differs from the normal sleep-inducing, one-car-at-a-time procedure fans are accustomed to watching.

NASCAR will implement group qualifying Saturday on the 2-mile, 11-turn course, which has some similarities to what Formula One fans see.

"I think it's definitely going to make it more fun to watch," Jimmie Johnson said. "It's also going to make it a little easier on the drivers. It will give us more of an opportunity to correct a mistake we may make during a lap.

"In road-course racing, there's such a flow and rhythm. When you sit for two or three hours before you make your lap and you get one shot at every corner, it's tough. With this new format, you'll make three or four laps. You can go out and take your time on the first lap and then go out and get on it the second or third time and bust it out. It makes it a little easier to get a good lap, but it will definitely add something for the fans."

Five or six cars at a time will go out to make qualifying laps. Group assignments are based on speeds from the first qualifying session Friday.

The fastest car in each group goes out first, separated by five seconds per car, down to the slowest in that group.

Each group has about a five-minute window to complete the qualifying session. That means the drivers get a chance to complete about three laps. Drivers can complete a lap if time runs out on them in the middle of that lap.

If a caution comes out during a session, it is like a timeout. The clock is put on hold. The fastest lap for each driver will determine where he or she starts Sunday.

It should be way more interesting to watch than the usual one-car monotony. NASCAR also plans to use the group format at Watkins Glen in August. I'll happily start a petition to do this on the oval tracks as well.

-- Terry Blount

Hamlin's crew elects to fix car

Denny Hamlin's team was working furiously to repair his No. 11 Toyota after he spun and hit a tire barrier in the final practice Friday. The right-rear quarter panel had significant damage, but the team elected to fix it. One crew member sat in the trunk and pushed the quarter panel back out with his feet.

Hamlin was eighth on the speed chart when the spin happened.

Hamlin also spun in the opening practice but didn't hit anything. He is winless on road courses in Cup races. He finished fifth at Sonoma in 2009 but was 34th or worse in the past three races here.

Clint Bowyer had the fastest lap in the final practice at 94.556 mph.

-- Terry Blount

Tony being Tony

Tony Stewart is back in the top 10 and back with a little pep in his step, which also means he's back to his surly self on interview questions that he considers uninformed.

A few examples:

Is breaking the track record [in qualifying] important?

"Does it pay extra?" Stewart asked. "Do we get any more points or do we get a bigger trophy or do we get more prize money? If no, it doesn't, then no, it doesn't matter to me."

Was something unusual about the first practice that caused drivers to go off course?

"No, they do that," he said. "Maybe you should watch practice every year. They do that every year at the beginning of practice [at Sonoma]. Guys drive off."

Are restarts here crazy fun for you?

"Is it crazy fun? No," he said. "Go drive and then tell me what you think and then we'll talk about whether it's fun or not."

Is it harder being a team owner or harder being a driver?

"Depends on what day it is," he said. "Sunday it's definitely harder being the driver. Monday it's a lot harder being the owner."

And there you have it, Stewart at his surly, condescending best.

-- Terry Blount

Qualifying groups set

The eight qualifying groups were set on the speed from the first practice. The groups will take the track Saturday morning, starting with the six slowest cars. The first three groups have six cars, and the final five groups have five in each. Only 43 cars are here, so no team will miss the race.

The fastest group includes Jamie McMurray, Kurt Busch, Casey Mears, Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose, who had the best lap in the first practice at 94.049 mph.

Clint Bowyer, the 2012 Sonoma winner, is in the next to last group with Greg Biffle, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano.

Danica Patrick and Jacques Villeneuve are in the third-slowest group, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

-- Terry Blount

JJ to appear in Sammy Hagar music video

The first topic of conversation with Jimmie Johnson on Friday wasn't Sonoma. It was his participation in a Sammy Hagar music video.

So what's it about?

"I lost my race car in a poker match to Sammy," Johnson said. "It's hard to believe with just two small cameras it's going to be a legitimate video. Technology is pretty amazing."

Hagar and Johnson are friends, which led to Johnson being involved in the video. Hagar founded Cabo Wabo tequila and the Cabo Wabo nightclubs in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Las Vegas; and Lake Tahoe, Nev.

"I've known Sammy for a long time,'' Johnson said. "I love his tequila. I've been down to his cantina [in Mexico] in the past. I was there for one of his birthday bashes one year and introduced him as he came out on stage with the band. He's just a good dude and he loves cars and loves music. That is right up my alley.

"The guy loves cars so much. Whenever I see him, all we talk about is what hot rods he has, what fast cars he has."

Hagar got to sit in one of Johnson's No. 48 Chevy race cars.

"I knew he wanted to, so we crammed him in there," Johnson said. "I was afraid we would need a cherry picker to get him out, but he found a way out."

-- Terry Blount

Earnhardt's granddaughter ready to announce plans

It's rare for a 12-year-old racer to hold a news conference, but people are interested when you happen to be the granddaughter of Dale Earnhardt.

Karsyn Elledge is the daughter of Kelley Earnhardt Miller, the GM of JR Motorsports and the daughter of Earnhardt. Karsyn's father is Jimmy Elledge, a longtime NASCAR crew chief who is helping with her budding career.

Karsyn is a rising star in the Mini Outlaw Series. Jimmy and Karsyn are announcing her future racing plans Saturday at Sonoma.

Kelley raced with her brother, Dale Earnhardt Jr., when they were kids. Earnhardt Sr. once said he thought Kelley had more of what it takes to be a quality racer than any of his children, but Kelley opted for the business side of things.

Maybe Karsyn has some of her mom's racing talent.

-- Terry Blount

Wine in spirit

Marcos Ambrose looked a little bewildered when he was asked the strangest question of the day. Yes, this is wine country, but he didn't see this one coming:

If you were a wine, which kind would you be?

Considering how out of left field that question was, Ambrose pulled off a pretty good response.

"I'm Australian, so I'd be an Australian wine," Ambrose said after thinking for a second or two. "How about that? I don't know. I'm certainly not a wine connoisseur. I'd be a little bit dry. I'd be a dry chardonnay from Barossa Valley in Australia."

-- Terry Blount

Bowyer takes the stage

Clint Bowyer was asked what he thinks of when someone says the name Jacques Villeneuve.

"Train wreck," Bowyer said. "An extremely fast train, but one that usually ends up derailed."

Bowyer, the defending winner at Sonoma, rapidly is becoming the most entertaining driver in Cup. Like Brad Keselowski, Bowyer says what he thinks, usually without a filter, but tends to be a little funnier about it.

Another example Friday came in response to a comment Marcos Ambrose made about Bowyer on Friday when Ambrose was asked who he thought could win the race Sunday.

"I think about 20 guys could win it," Ambrose said. "Who would have thought last year Clint Bowyer would win it?"

Bowyer came in the media center a little after Ambrose.

"I heard that," Bowyer said. "That was kind of mean. Who would have thought he would shut off his engine while leading here at the end? So bam. Right back at ya, buddy. But seriously, he is amazing in these [road-course] races."

Ambrose appeared to have the Sonoma race won in 2010 when he stalled the engine trying to save fuel under caution.

Bowyer actually agreed with Ambrose seeing his victory last year as a bit of a surprise. Bowyer was asked if he thought he could win here when he first came to Sonoma at the start of his NASCAR career.

"Not in a million years," Bowyer said. "But after the first couple of stabs at it, I was pretty good here. But I always struggle at Watkins Glen."

Bowyer made the Chase last year after missing it in 2011. He was asked how it feels to miss the Chase.

"It sucks," he said.

A reporter asked him to amplify on that answer.

"OK," he said. "I can scream it if you like.

"Look, the Chase makes your season. Competing for a championship is what it's all about for teams and sponsors. They want the car to be in the Chase because that's where the limelight is. Missing it is not a feeling I would wish on anybody."

-- Terry Blount



Honoring one of the good ones

Most of you did not know John Cardinale, but trust me, you wish you had.

Cardinale, the longtime public relations director at Sonoma Raceway, left us far too soon in March after a brave two-year battle with gastric cancer.

The Sonoma media center was renamed the John Cardinale Media Center on Friday, and a beautiful bronze plaque of his likeness was placed on the wall. His name also has been added to the Sonoma Wall of Fame.

He helped make this one of the best facilities in the sport. And he made our jobs so much easier as one of the best PR men in the business.

He was a star of his profession and, more importantly, as good a man as you could ever meet. We all miss him.

-- Terry Blount

Villeneuve is back; should he watch his back?

Paybacks happen far less frequently in NASCAR than most fans think, but if anyone should fear a little retribution this weekend, it has to be Jacques Villeneuve.

The 1995 Formula One champion punted Danica Patrick on the last lap of the Nationwide race at Road America last year. Patrick was on her way to a likely top-5 finish before Villeneuve entered a curve too hot and got into the back of Patrick's car, causing her Chevy to spin off the course.

Patrick saw Villeneuve on Friday morning, but they didn't talk.

"It was like, 'Oh, hey.' That was about it," she said. "After all the things that happened, it's hard for me to have a lot of respect for someone like that. I have respect for his career, but not how he has raced me."

Sunday will be the second time the two drivers have raced in the same event since that incident last June. Both drivers raced at Montreal in August when Villeneuve finished third in the Nationwide race on the course named after his father -- Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

Patrick got punted in that race also, sort of. But this time, it was a shoe that caused her problems. She was leading the race, but her car was damaged in the infamous incident of a fan tossing a shoe on the track that Patrick ran over. She finished 27th.

Villeneuve, 42, is driving the No. 51 Chevy this weekend for Phoenix Racing.

"We wanted to put a driver in our car who would give us the best chance to win at Sonoma," said team owner James Finch. "When the opportunity came up to have someone like Jacques in our car, we were very happy to make that happen.

"It's a long way out there [to California] to not be competitive. He gives us the chance to not only do really well but to actually win the race. We led laps there last year and almost did win it. We plan on getting the trophy this time."

Kurt Busch finished third in the No. 51 car last year at Sonoma.

-- Terry Blount



Milestone for Gonzalez, NASCAR

Most of you probably haven't heard of Victor Gonzalez Jr., but he will make history this weekend. Gonzalez will become the first driver from the Caribbean to race in a Sprint Cup event.

Gonzalez, 37, was born in Puerto Rico but now lives in the Dominican Republic. He's driving the No. 36 Chevrolet this weekend for Tommy Baldwin Racing.

"I realize that this is a historic moment for NASCAR, for Hispanic racing fans and for the people of the Caribbean," Gonzalez said. "I understand how important it is for me to spread the word about Sunday's race.

"Every time I am on television or the radio or whenever I am interviewed, it brings new Hispanic and Caribbean fans to NASCAR. Having my fans become NASCAR fans will help to grow the role of Hispanic drivers in NASCAR in the future."

Gonzalez, known as a road-racing specialist, made his NASCAR debut in 2009 and finished a respectable 16th in a Nationwide Series event at Montreal.

He has competed in seven Nationwide events overall, including two last season, when he finished 17th at Road America and 16th at Watkins Glen.

-- Terry Blount



Patrick eager to go road racing

Believe it or not, Danica Patrick has a lot more experience racing at Sonoma than many of the drivers who will start Sunday's Sprint Cup race.

She has raced seven times on the wine country road course and posted three top-10s, but all those events were in an Indy car. Will the open-wheel experience help her on Sunday?

"Other than being familiar with the garage and pit lane, no," she said. "The cars are obviously so different that nothing will translate. It's just such a different style of driving."

Patrick tested two weeks ago on the road course at Virginia International Raceway.

"It was a productive day," she said. "It wasn't so much about setting up the car for Sonoma because the tracks are completely different. It was more about getting a good brake package and making sure I'm comfortable in the car.

"It's my first road-course race with Stewart-Haas Racing and my first time working one with [crew chief] Tony Gibson, so it was just about making sure everything is smooth. There is so much that goes into a road-course race -- shifting, braking, mirrors, the seat -- you just want to make sure you're as comfortable as possible so you don't have to work on those things too much once you get to the track."

-- Terry Blount

Not the house of Roush

The odds are remote that Greg Biffle will post his second consecutive victory this weekend. Sonoma won't go down as one of his favorite tracks, nor will it for team owner Jack Roush.

The Roush organization has only one victory at Sonoma, and that was 16 years ago with Mark Martin. It's the last time a Roush Ford won at either road course, including Watkins Glen, in a Cup event.

No Ford driver has won at Sonoma since 2002, when Ricky Rudd went to Victory Lane for Robert Yates Racing, but Marcos Ambrose is a legitimate threat in the Ford camp this weekend.

Biffle is coming off a victory at Michigan, but he's never won a Cup race on a road course. However, he did finish seventh in two of the past three Sonoma races. RFR teammate Carl Edwards finished third on the California road course in 2011.

-- Terry Blount