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Kurt Busch finishes fifth, contends for victory during return to NASCAR at Phoenix 500 500

Chris Trotman

It was three races late, but Kurt Busch started his 2015 season Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, and the debut went about as well as could be expected.

After missing three races because of a NASCAR suspension while facing domestic violence allegations, Busch finished fifth in Sunday’s 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Busch was running second to Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick when the caution flew on Lap 290 of 312. Busch was the first among lead-lap drivers to pit, and his No. 41 Chevrolet emerged from the pits in eighth. He ran out of time to catch Harvick over the final 18 laps despite having fresher tires.

It was another solid finish for his team, which hadn’t finished outside the top 20 in three previous starts with Regan Smith.

“They’re doing their homework,” Busch said of crew chief Tony Gibson and the team. “They’re doing their job. I haven’t been there for them. So it’s bittersweet.

“We started our season today. We got a top‑five finish. Now it’s on to the next group of races to where we will develop as a team and get stronger and stronger and stronger. If we can have a goal of shadowing Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers, that’s the best objective to have right now.”

Busch, who was paired with Gibson for the final three races last season, employed the setup used by Harvick, whose No. 4 Chevy led 224 laps in its second consecutive victory.

“I thought we did a good job to simulate things that (Harvick has) been doing,” Busch said. “You would be stupid not to. So we headed his direction. We need to continue to do that. It’s still, though, so many little things that add up to make a full, complete winning race car.”

Busch said he was rusty Sunday on restarts when “those guys were serving me my lunch,” but he still managed to climb from eighth to second while staying out of trouble.

But though he needs to stay in the top 30 in points to have a shot at making the Chase (he is ranked 33rd after Phoenix), he said he remains focused on victories.

“Whether we take a risk or not, it’s my job to go for those wins,” Busch said. “(Car owner) Gene Haas would rather have the car loaded up on the flatbed going for a win instead of just cruising around there trying to finish 12th.”