FONTANA, Calif.—One week removed from his return from a three-race suspension, Kurt Busch rewarded the unwavering support from Stewart-Haas Racing team co-owner Gene Haas by putting his No. 41 Chevrolet on the pole for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX).
“It’s amazing to do this in Gene Haas’ back yard,” said Busch, who streaked around two-mile Auto Club Speedway in 38.889 seconds (185.142 mph) during the third and final round of Friday’s knockout qualifying for the fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of the season.
A day after making an appearance at the Haas Automation headquarters in nearby Oxnard, Busch won his record fourth Coors Light Pole Award at Auto Club Speedway and the 17th of his career. In winning his first pole since May 2013 at Darlington, Busch edged Stewart-Haas teammate and reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick (185.047 mph) by .020 seconds.
Behind the Stewart-Haas sweep of the front row, Matt Kenseth qualified third at 184.966 mph, followed by David Ragan (184.886 mph) and Kyle Larson (184.337 mph). At the track closest to Toyota Racing Development’s home in Costa Mesa, four Toyota drivers made the top 12 on the grid—Kenseth, Ragan, Denny Hamlin (sixth) and Clint Bowyer (10th).
“This is huge for Gene Haas,” said Busch, who was suspended by NASCAR in the wake of allegations of domestic violence against former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll and the finding of a State of Delaware Family Court commissioner that, more likely than not, Busch had committed an act of domestic abuse. “Thank you, Gene, for believing in me. This is my job. Come to the track, drive the car and put it up on the pole and go for wins.
“That is what Gene has told me to do from the get-go, and I’m glad I have this chance to go back out there and live up to why he hired me. It feels good. The guys were just spot-on all day with all the adjustments. The car started off so fast and it is all due to the work back at the shop. Thank you Stewart-Haas Racing. Appreciate it. No. 41 car up front feels good.”
NASCAR lifted Busch’s suspension after he completed a reinstatement program and after the Delaware Department of Justice declined to file charges in the case, citing insufficient evidence.
Since his return, Busch has been fast on the race track, qualifying eighth and finishing fifth last week at Phoenix and winning the pole at Fontana on Friday.
Harvick, who is trying for a sweep of the three races on NASCAR’s West Coast swing – Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana — had a good lap going before abandoning his intended line because of cars rolling slowly on the apron.
“I got down into Turn 3, and I was committed to the bottom, and there were three cars on the apron that were cooling off,” Harvick explained. “I wanted to run the apron because I ran it in the second round and thought that I knew what I needed to do in the third round.
“I got through (Turns) 1 and 2 fairly good, got to the green really good and then I had to abort down here. All-in-all, still a good effort.”
Notes: Jeff Gordon will start seventh in his final run at Fontana. … Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick both made the top 24 in the first round of knockout qualifying but failed to advance to the final round. They will start 17th and 22nd, respectively. … Travis Kvapil and Reed Sorenson failed to make the 43-car field.
Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service
Image: Jerry Markland/NASCAR via Getty Images