NASCAR driver Kurt Busch spent this week touring the Southern California headquarters of two of his main sponsors ahead of Sunday’s Auto Club 400.
Busch signed autographs and took selfies with employees at Haas Automation Inc. in Oxnard and Monster Beverage Corp. in Corona.
“I want [the workers] to feel good about their car,” Busch said Friday before his first practice at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
Busch certainly has reason to feel good about his car this year — and about his personal life after years of turbulence on and off the track.
The 38-year-old former champion in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last month won the season-opening Daytona 500, the series’ premier race, in his No. 41 Ford prepared by the Stewart-Haas Racing team.
The win came one month after Busch married Ashley Van Metre, a competitive polo player and model whom Busch said “has helped me become a more well-rounded human being.”
In qualifying Friday, Busch earned the 15th starting spot for Sunday’s race while Kyle Larson won the pole position with a lap of 187.047 mph on the two-mile Auto Club Speedway. Denny Hamlin qualifed second.
Jimmie Johnson, the defending race winner and Cup champion, did not qualify after crashing his primary car in practice and will start near the rear of the 39-car field in a backup car.
For much of his 17-year career in the Cup series, Busch — once nicknamed “The Outlaw” — seemed to draw as many headlines for his mercurial and controversial behavior as the Las Vegas native did for his 29 Cup victories.
He feuded with other drivers, certain team members and the media, even though colleagues say on other occasions he’s quietly generous with his time and money when it comes to thanking his racing team, sponsors and fans.
NASCAR also has briefly suspended Busch, including two years ago when he faced allegations of domestic abuse by an ex-girlfriend during a race weekend in Delaware.
Busch vehemently denied the allegations and Delaware prosecutors declined to file criminal charges, but not before Busch had missed the Daytona 500 during the three-week suspension.
That was overshadowed when Busch captured this year’s Daytona 500 and he enjoyed showing the race winner’s Harley J. Earl Trophy to his sponsors’ employees this week.
“I said, ‘This is your trophy, we’re family, this is something we all did together,’ ” said Busch, whose younger brother is 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch.
As for Sunday’s race, “there is a little bit of that added pressure of both sponsors being here in SoCal,” Kurt Busch said. “This track has been good to me over the years but it’s been tough on me recently and I want to perform.”
Busch has one Cup victory at Fontana, in 2003 when he drove a Ford for Roush. Busch has seven top-five Cup finishes overall in 23 starts at Auto Club Speedway.
After starting his career with team owner Jack Roush in 2000, Busch moved to Roger Penske’s team in 2006. He won 10 Cup races for Penske until they parted ways in late 2011, shortly after Busch was caught on camera making profanity-laced comments while waiting impatiently for a television interview at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway.
Busch then raced for two lower-budget teams, Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing, before joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, the team co-owned by former Cup champion Tony Stewart.
“I drive for a top-notch team in the series that I love,” Busch said. “To be competitive and have chances of winning races and winning poles every weekend, that’s what you dream about and hope for and work toward.”
Follow James F. Peltz on Twitter @PeltzLATimes