SONOMA -- Kurt Busch turned the fastest lap in the first practice session for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 on Friday at Sonoma Raceway, giving the veteran driver and his young team continued hope they can turn around their season.

Busch, who has three straight top-five finishes in Sonoma and is in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, enters this weekend 26th in points. He has three top-three results -- including a victory at Martinsville in March -- but also nine finishes outside the top 20.

But things seem to be getting better for Busch and rookie crew chief Daniel Knost. Busch finished third at Pocono two weeks ago and was 13th in Michigan last Sunday, as they try to learn from the mistakes they made earlier in the season.

"We've been hot or ice cold. We hit it hot at Martinsville, when we won, and we had a top five and had a chance to win in Fontana," said Busch, who had a lap time of 75.039 seconds in the first practice session Friday. "That's what happens when you have a new group. We've had to go through the process of growing, and the growing pains have been tough at times."

Busch probably had the best car in last year's race in Sonoma but was penalized for speeding twice on pit lane and finished fourth for Furniture Row Racing. He was third in 2012 with Phoenix Racing and won the race in 2011 in his last season with Penske Racing.

Both years he qualified 11th or better, and a victory Sunday would all but assure that Busch makes the Chase for the Cup for the fourth time in five years. Qualifying is Saturday morning.

  • Busch had the 21st fastest lap (75.461 seconds) in Friday's final practice, when Clint Bowyer was the quickest (74.634). Bowyer, the 2012 Sonoma winner, had the second-fastest lap in the first session (75.078).

    "Where we're at right now, we're in a position that if you go out here and win, it locks us in to the Chase," said Bowyer, who is 14th in the standings. "The only thing I can do that I can't afford to do here is get wiped out, crash myself, run off the track, divebomb somebody and make a mistake where it really takes you out of contention for a good finish."

  • Hendrick Motorsports will be looking for its sixth straight win this season. After Jimmie Johnson won for Hendrick last week at Michigan, Penske driver Brad Keselowski said, "It's pretty obvious that the Hendrick engines are way ahead of everyone else."

    Points leader Jeff Gordon, who started full time with Hendrick in 1993, offered a slight retort Friday.

    "I definitely saw some cars at Michigan last week that were not Hendrick cars that didn't need to be complaining about their engines," Gordon said. "They were getting down the straightaway plenty good. We were really beating them in the corner, though.

    "All I know is over the years when other teams are complaining about us that is usually when things are going really well for us."