AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Kurt Busch, buoyed by a warm reception from his race team, was finally back in a car Friday preparing for his first race of the season.
There was very little rust: He advanced into the final round of qualifying and will start eighth in Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway.
"It's not me," Busch said. "It's the team."
Busch was suspended the first three races of the season for an alleged domestic assault of a former girlfriend. NASCAR reinstated him this week, and Stewart-Haas Racing promptly put him back in the No. 41 Chevrolet.
"It's always a little different going out there for your first lap of the year," Busch said. "It all felt normal today, and to be in the top-10, that's a great start. But there are all kinds of things to learn and feel with the car.
"I'm looking forward to the next three weeks. I had three weeks to sit and watch, and now I'm back on my game."
He seemed to genuinely appreciate being back in a car and among his peers.
"The seat, the belts and just the love from the crew guys, it's been pretty cool the way the garage feels like a fraternity," he said after his first practice session. "It's nice to see good friends."
Busch was suspended two days before the season-opening Daytona 500 after a Delaware judge ruled he likely assaulted Patricia Driscoll in his motorhome in September at Dover International Speedway. He lost two rounds of appeals on the eve of the season-opening Daytona 500, then missed NASCAR's biggest race of the year.
He also was suspended for races at Atlanta, one of his favorite tracks, and Las Vegas, his hometown.
The 2004 champion said it was "torture" not being able to race.
It was the third suspension of his career, and led NASCAR to insist that Busch participate in a road to reinstatement program.
His path to reinstatement accelerated last week when the Delaware attorney general declined to charge Busch, and health care expert recommended to NASCAR Busch's immediate reinstatement.
Busch, who remains on indefinite probation, has denied Driscoll's allegations.
His focus, he insisted Friday, is just getting back to racing and a regular routine.
"It was good just to get back in the seat and shake hands with all the guys," Busch said. "Having the support of Stewart-Haas, it's been like family. Then to see the other crew members that I know, and some that I don't know, who shake my hand and say 'welcome back,' it feels good."
After missing the first three races, he's got some adapting to do to the new 2015 rules package.
"I have to learn the car and the feel, because it looks like the lap times are so tight," he said, noting that one slight miss in first practice had him 17th on the speed chart.
Reigning NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick believes SHR will benefit from Busch's return. Regan Smith drove the No. 41 in the first three races, with a best finish of 16th at both Daytona and Las Vegas.
Harvick, meanwhile, won last weekend at Las Vegas and has two runner-up finishes.
But SHR teammates Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick are not yet up to the same speed. Stewart has had two wrecks and was 33rd last week at Las Vegas, where he was vocal in his displeasure with the rules package.
Patrick's best finish was 16th at Atlanta.
"To have Kurt back in the car is an asset to everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing from a performance side," Harvick said. "Everything that he does inside that race car is a benefit to us."
Patrick also believes the organization can utilize Busch's strengths to help all four cars. Busch has 25 career wins and is considered one of the smartest drivers in the garage.
"He's very fast, he's really technical — he talks way over my head about stuff about the car," she said, adding that having the regular SHR lineup together for debriefs and competition meetings will be a help.