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Kurt Busch Returns To Driver’s Seat With A Bang

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 21 2015

Kurt Busch won the pole for Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race in California. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Kurt Busch says he is “putting the blinders on” in his return to the Sprint Cup Series following a NASCAR-imposed suspension for alleged domestic abuse.

Busch qualified on-pole Friday afternoon for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 in Fontana, Calif., five days after making a delayed 2015 debut at Phoenix International Raceway. Busch was reinstated by the sanctioning body on March 11 after the Delaware Attorney General declined to file charges stemming from a domestic abuse complaint initiated by the driver’s former girlfriend.

Something to prove? Another shot at redemption? Maybe for those skeptics who doubt a new-and-improved KuBu will be able to control the anger management issues that have clouded his career since winning the Cup championship in 2004. Forced to sit-out the season’s first three races, Busch insists his agenda is all about the driving.

“I’ve said it before on how this is a privilege to have a chance to drive at this top level,” Busch said after touring the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in 38.889-seconds/185.124 mph to nail the 17th pole of his Cup career. “When it’s taken away from you or you have made a mistake and you don’t get a chance to go out there and do it on your terms, it’s tough. I don’t have anything to prove. I have my job to do, which is to go out there, drive and race for wins.”

Busch returned to the cockpit of his No. 41 Hass Automation Chevrolet SS last weekend with a solid fifth-place finish at PIR, where Stewart-Haas Racing teammate and reigning Cup champion Kevin Harvick won his second race of the season. Busch _ granted a waiver by NASCAR to compete for the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship despite his time in the penalty box _ indicated he is focused on making up for lost time.

“It’s my love. It’s my passion. It’s what I do,” said Busch, who posted his fourth pole in 22 races at the facility approximately 50 miles east of Los Angeles. “I love to go out there and to drive fast. And when you have the chance to drive down into the corner as fast as we do, and have it stick as good as it does, it’s a feeling that you want to carry as long as you can. I’m able to do that because I’ve been given good cars to do such. I’m just staying focused. I’m keeping up with numbers, watching film, and knowing that if I give it my best effort, good things will come.”

Busch will start alongside Harvick in his No. 4 Jimmy John’s/Budweiser Chevrolet SS. Harvick, winner of the last two races at PIR and Las Vegas Motor Speedway and four of six dating to his title run, posted a hot lap of 185.047 mph in the final round of knockout qualifying.

Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth (184.986 mph) and David Ragan (184.886 mph) while subbing for the injured Kyle Busch, qualified third and fourth, respectively, in their No. 17 DeWalt and No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota Camrys. Kyle Larson will start fifth in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet SS.

Busch toured team co-owner Gene Haas’ Southern California CNC machine headquarters Thursday, schmoozing with employees and customers while learning about the manufacturing process. Haas, co-owner of SHR with three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, added a fourth Cup team for the star-crossed Busch in 2014.

“I got a good feel from when I visited the Haas headquarters to see the employees and the different customers that came by, and to feel the love from them was extra-special,” Busch said. “When you see it first-hand, it just blows you away and you’re really impressed with how his dream has created a situation for so many employees and Stewart-Haas Racing and for his passion for racing. It’s great to be able to come in here and deliver a pole for him on this weekend, and I’ll keep going for some more wins.

“It’s Gene who believed in me and showed his belief and his strength. Am I behind? Yeah, I need to go out there and win more poles and win more races. But I have everything to thank through Gene Haas.”

Busch also praised the effort of crew chief Tony Gibson, who worked with Regan Smith during a period that saw implementation of NASCAR’s newest rules package affecting horsepower and aerodynamics.

“I really enjoy working with Tony Gibson,” Busch said. “He’s an old-school guy that really knows the car well. He knows how to manage his people. He brings the best piece each and every week, whether it’s a Phoenix-style layout or a California Speedway-style layout.

“Our cars have a lot of man-hours put into them. I’m proud to drive them. I really can’t thank him enough. It’s great to have a veteran leader like him and to have all the crew members in-place. This No. 41 car is very strong.”

Harvick, meanwhile, is poised to sweep NASCAR’s “Western Swing” with a victory in his home state. “Yeah, I’m just really proud of everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing to see the No. 41 and the No. 4 cars on the front row,” said Harvick, a native of Bakersfield, Calif. “I’m really happy for Kurt and Tony Gibson and all those guys with everything that they’ve gone through.

“I’m really proud of my guys for making a good change. We never even really made a lap in practice that wasn’t impeded by something going wrong. And then I thought we had a lap that was pretty good through (Turns) 1 and 2 and great coming to the green. There were three cars on the apron where I wanted to run, coming to the checkered and wound up having to run the middle of the track. But it was still a good lap and we’ll definitely take a front row start.

“It’s really good for everybody at the organization to know that both sides of the shop are producing similar cars. Obviously, everything happened at the beginning of this year. It’s just taken a little bit longer to showcase exactly what they (Busch and Gibson) had. So, it’s exciting for the company, just for the fact that I know there’s been a lot of talk about the No. 41 and the No. 4 and the No. 10 (Danica Patrick) and all the different teams and how they’re running. But having the No. 41 run good the last two weeks with Kurt back is good for everybody at SHR.”

Sunday’s 200-lap/400-mile race is scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. (EDT). Live coverage will be available on FOX, MRN, Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 90 and NASCAR.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 21 2015
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