Kurt Busch's comeback from his season-opening suspension is gathering speed.
Busch won the pole for Sunday's NASCAR race at Auto Club Speedway, turning a lap of 185.142 mph in his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to edge teammate Kevin Harvick.
Busch took another step forward Friday in his return from four months of off-track troubles involving his ex-girlfriend, who accused him of domestic assault. He wasn't charged, but missed the first three races of this season under suspension.
Busch was reflective after claiming the 17th pole of his NASCAR career and his first since May 2013.
"This is a privilege to have a chance to drive at this top level," Busch said. "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. So I don't have anything to prove. I have my job to do, though, and that's to win races."
Busch returned last week with a fifth-place finish at Phoenix even while he's still adjusting to NASCAR's new rules package. He then claimed the pole at Fontana for the track-record fourth time in his career, capitalizing on Stewart-Haas' impressive engineering start to the season.
Busch said he is having success in the face of potential distraction by "just putting the blinders on and focusing on the car. It's my love. It's my passion. It's what I do. I love to go out there and drive fast."
After Busch was the fastest in practice at Fontana, he even nudged past Harvick, the defending series champion on a two-race win streak and a dominant run of seven top-two finishes dating to last season. Harvick clocked a lap at 185.047 mph to join Busch in the front row.
"It's great to come to this track and be able to produce a pole," Busch said. "It just shows the strength of the team, and we need to capitalize on it now."
Matt Kenseth was third in qualifying, and David Ragan finished fourth in the No. 18 Toyota normally driven by Kyle Busch, the injured two-time defending champion at Fontana.
With Kyle Busch sidelined by a broken right leg and a broken left foot, California natives Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are hoping to replicate past successes here. Yet everybody in the paddock realizes Harvick has the car to beat — and Busch will be right alongside him to start.
Harvick's Chevrolet has won the first two titles on the three-race West Coast swing, putting him in position for a clean sweep at Fontana. Only 19 drivers in NASCAR history have won three straight races, but Harvick seems equally excited by Stewart-Haas Racing's overall strong start to the season.
"That's really good for our two cars, and it's good for everybody at the organization to know that both sides of the shop are producing similar cars," said Harvick, whose car isn't paired with Busch's car in the four-team Stewart-Haas garage. "Having the 41 run good the last two weeks with Kurt back is good for everybody at SHR."
After a busy Friday under ideal sunny weather, drivers are expecting the usual weekend intrigue caused by the heavy tire wear on Auto Club Speedway's well-aged asphalt, where running five wide is possible and entertaining races are the rule.
The track east of Los Angeles once had two NASCAR races per year, but its schedule was trimmed to a single event in 2011 after fan support dwindled, particularly for the second race in the Labor Day weekend heat.
With only one date on the NASCAR calendar, attention has picked up again among racing fans in Southern California, and they've been rewarded with impressive events.
Harvick, who grew up three hours north in Bakersfield, California, would like to see that logic applied to some of the other 13 NASCAR tracks with two annual races.
"Sometimes, if you take one really great thing, you can really easily make them into two mediocres, and we do that all the time in our sport," Harvick said.
"Some markets are just one-race markets," Harvick added. "I would say 90 percent of them are one-race markets, but a lot of them still have two races. ... When people know you're only coming one time a year, you have to go to that one particular race. I think everything is going good for this particular track."