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 for Sunday’s Save Mart 350. He topped Marcos Ambrose, a race favorite, with a lap at 94.986 miles per hour.
‘‘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.
‘‘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.