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Group time trials a tricky challenge

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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SONOMA, CALIF.

Welcome to the new and improved Sprint Cup road course qualifying.

With the success that NASCAR has enjoyed in group time trials in both Nationwide and the truck series, the sanctioning body decided in April to adopt a similar procedure for Cup, starting this weekend at Sonoma Raceway.

For some drivers, it was just a matter of understanding the procedures. For Matt Kenseth, who isn’t crazy about road courses to begin with, the new qualifying will offer a new opportunity.

“I don't know the exact rules,” Kenseth said prior to practice. “I know they're doing it different. I think we have a couple laps with a group out there or whatever. It's fine.

“There's always a lot of pressure when you got to go out and do one lap and you have so many corners — it's kind of easy to mess up. So, I think it will be fun."

On Saturday, NASCAR will break the 43-car field into eight groups based on the speeds from first practice, with the slowest cars running qualifying first. The drivers will roll off from pit road, take one warm-up lap, and the fastest car in each will lead the cars to the line and roll off in five-second intervals. Each group will have five minutes to post a fast lap.

Clint Bowyer, the defending Toyota/Save Mart 350 winner who topped the speed chart in Happy Hour with a lap of 75.765 seconds, believes the new format will make is “easier to get in a rhythm.”

“Road course racing is all about rhythm, timing — very, very difficult to do that pulling on the back straightaway and hitting your marks like that,” Bowyer said.

“It will probably take away that good driver or good team that accidently messes his lap up that we had before, but I think all your fast cars will probably be up front because of it."

Five-time Sonoma winner Jeff Gordon believes the ability to run a minimum of three timed laps will offer drivers some wiggle room.

“It’s nice to have in the back of your mind knowing that you’ve got a little room for error if you have to run another lap,” Gordon said. “I think from a time standpoint it makes sense for TV and for the fans that are here to know that it’s kind of a start and stop. I’ve said before, when we get into knockout qualifying like F1 does, then you’ll see me get pretty excited about doing it this way.”

WORKING ON ONE FORD

Roush Fenway Racing teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle reached a detente in the Ford motorcoach prior to Friday’s activities in Sonoma.

WHAT WAS THAT?

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The dialogue came about following a “misunderstanding” at Michigan between the drivers after Biffle, who won the race, refused to assist Edwards in removing a piece of debris from the grille of his car.

Biffle believed it wasn’t in his best interest to sacrifice the track position. Crew chief Jimmy Fennig, who deflected blame to Biffle for the No. 99 Ford overheating, drew Edwards' reply, “He ain’t our teammate.”

On Friday, the teammates had the opportunity to hash out their differences.

“This week’s been a little bit frustrating for a number of reasons,” said Edwards, who felt crucified by the media in the aftermath.

“I didn’t know until Wednesday, after I read a bunch of articles, that the whole 99 team was mad at something that we weren’t mad about. We had an issue earlier in the race, and that’s where our frustration came from. We all had a chance to talk about it. I understand what Biffle was thinking at the time. We shook hands. I think we’re actually going to be a stronger team because of it. It was kind of a cool meeting.

“In a way, I think this might be one of the neatest things that happened. It’s the first time we had a meeting like that. It’s pretty neat how much faith we have in each other.”

IT ADDS UP

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Edwards said his initial issue occurred 70 laps into the race but was only for position. The second time the No. 99 started overheating was 80 laps later, when Edwards was defending the lead.

For Biffle, it was a question of vying for his first win of the season. He understands Edwards’ frustration, but he has to worry about his standings as well. Before Michigan, Biffle was 10th in the point standings, 126 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. But winning a race should help secure the veterans standing for the Chase.

“You get hot under the collar when your teammate is within sight distance and we want to help each other the best we can,” Biffle said. “And I told Carl that. I said, ‘Carl, I’ll help you any way that I can, any time I can.’

"But each time is a different circumstance. And it got blown out of proportion. We know we have to help each other. If Carl overheated and blew up, that doesn’t help us. At the same breath, there are other cars on the track. We have to do what makes sense, and you have to take care of your own car. If you can’t get to that guy, you need to start looking for an alternative. You can’t burn it up and you can’t just pit under green to get paper off. There are other options.”

Edwards led 16 laps before finishing eighth at Michigan.

“Greg was working on passing Matt (Kenseth) at the time,” Edwards added. “He didn’t realize the situation we were in until we went back and looked at the temperatures on the ECUs (engine control unit). If we had it to do all over again, it probably would have gone differently. It’s as good as it could be.

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“Look, we’re racers. We don’t always get along … let’s round it up here. At lap 70, I was really, really pissed. The rest of the race went on. When it’s all said and done, I’m happy that Greg won the race. I’m happy for Ford. We had a good meeting up there and nobody got hurt. I ended up eighth. Everything is fine.”

NUMBERS GAME

92.291 — The best 10 consecutive lap average, posted by former Sonoma winner Juan Pablo Montoya.

3 — Drivers will be making their Sprint Cup debuts at Sonoma — Paulie Harraka, Victor Gonzales Jr. and Alex Kennedy.

3 — Drivers inducted into the West Coast Hall of Fame — Ron Hornaday, Derrike Cope and Chad Little.

SAY WHAT?

When Australian Marcos Ambrose was asked what aspect of racing in America took the longest to acclimate to, his answer was simple: “In Australia, we drive on the other side of the car. That’s a pretty big difference right there. I have to be honest with you, when I first came to America, driving on the left-hand side of the car was very foreign to me.”

Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards

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