March 15, 2015

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) After nearly four months of off-track drama, Kurt Busch was finally able to get back into a car and focus only on racing again.

It was liberating for the maligned driver.

Busch made his season debut Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, where he finished fifth in his first race since his NASCAR suspension ended earlier this week.

''The way we raced today, it was with heart,'' he said.

The 2004 champion was suspended two days before the season-opening Daytona 500 for an alleged domestic assault on an ex-girlfriend. He missed three races and was reinstated after Delaware authorities declined to charge him.

Stewart-Haas Racing promptly returned him to the No. 41 Chevrolet, and he wasted no time earning a strong finish to boost the team that had been patiently awaiting his return. Regan Smith drove the car while Busch was suspended, and crew chief Tony Gibson made sure the team remained steady in his absence.

Busch credited Gibson and his crew for not missing a step, and team co-owner Gene Haas for supporting him.

''They're doing their homework. They're doing their job. I haven't been there for them,'' he said. ''It's a quality effort from Stewart-Haas. They kept everything warm for me. Gene Haas, when I was talking to him, I said, `Will the car be there when I get back?' He said, `It's your seat. When you get back, it's yours.'''

Haas struggled with the initial suspension, but is grateful Busch is back and the team can now look forward. Haas hand-picked Busch to drive a new car for the organization that is funded out of pocket by the team co-owner.

Haas wanted to see his brand make it to victory lane, and he felt Busch was the driver who could do it for him. Busch delivered with one win last season, his first with the team, and a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

''I was a little bit stunned, I think, by the fact that Kurt was pulled out several days before Daytona, which just seemed so incredulous to me,'' Haas said Sunday. ''Two days before the Daytona 500, to do that to a driver, just didn't seem right. But the way things unfolded, you know, it worked out.

''We didn't really lose too much time. Kurt now is back in the car. I think he's razor focused. He appreciates that driving at this level is a privilege.''

Jamie McMurray, a former teammate of Busch's when they both drove for Roush Fenway Racing, said no one should be surprised by Busch's performance Sunday after nearly a month away. He said Busch showed his skill in the Truck Series and had no trouble finding speed when he moved to the Cup Series

''Matt Kenseth and I talk about Kurt and his ability in a car and how talented he is,'' McMurray said. ''It didn't shock me at all to see him get in and run as well as he did this weekend.''

On Sunday, when he found himself chasing teammate Kevin Harvick for the lead with about 60 laps to go, Busch said he nearly grew emotional.

''The big one was when I was behind Kevin about 60 laps to go. We're running 1-2,'' he said. ''That's Stewart-Haas' racing objective every week. When you have that sense of pride of running 1-2, I knew the race shop was probably going bananas on us running so well. That's the emotional side of it, of working through all the different things I've been through this offseason. Stewart-Haas Racing has been my family.''

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