Tony Stewart has rough finish after early surge
August 31, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live | Sign up for RaceView today
HAMPTON, Ga. -- The hand-scrawled messages of encouragement left by fans on the wall alongside the No. 14 car's pit stall told the story with dozens of notes with well-wishes heralding Tony Stewart's comeback to competition. "Welcome back, Smoke," "Glad you're back," and "Go get 'em, Tony!" were among the most frequent refrains, etching the barrier in front of the Stewart-Haas Racing team's war wagon with doting graffiti.
If Sharpie on concrete didn't spell out the overwhelming fan reaction, the roaring ovation for Stewart as his name was called in driver introductions made it loud and clear.
On a muggy Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway that featured a little bit of everything -- a cat or squirrel or both on the race track in the early going -- Stewart returned to the sport after a three-week absence, marking his first competition since he was involved in a sprint-car incident that claimed the life of 20-year-old driver Kevin Ward Jr. The night ended in early dejection with two bouts of on-track trouble near the race's halfway point, the latter a fender-shredding blown tire that sidelined him to stay.
"It's very disappointing," crew chief Chad Johnston said after Stewart pulled his Chevrolet back to the garage for a 41st-place finish. "It's obviously his first week back; we were hoping for bigger things. Qualified well and had good speed in practice and had good speed at the beginning of the race. Definitely not the outlook we were looking for."
Friday, Stewart made his first public appearance since the fatal accident that dark night in Canandaigua, New York, saying in a self-prepared statement that the tragedy would affect his life forever. While still shaken by the incident, this weekend he took his first steps toward finding a new normal, even as the authorities' investigation into the accident continues, turning his mind toward returning to work in the Labor Day 500-miler.
The biggest cheer for any of the 43 drivers in the field for the next-to-last race of the regular season was reserved for Stewart, who offered a wave as he walked across the driver introduction stage during pre-race ceremonies. Once back at the car before the command to fire engines, Stewart took a moment of prayer in a circle with his team alongside Johnny Morris, founder of sponsor Bass Pro Shops, and Rusty Rush, chairman and CEO of Rush Truck Centers, another Stewart backer, before loading in.
During the formation laps, Johnston gave his driver a final pep talk via in-car communication: "Nice and smooth, all day long. You know how this place is. Take care of our stuff and we'll see if we have something for them at the end."
Stewart keyed his radio: "Guys, be careful. Be safe down there. Appreciate everything."
The therapeutic effect that Stewart was seeking was accompanied by performance early on as he bolted from the 12th starting position in the Oral B USA 500 up to seventh place in the first two laps and further up into the top five by Lap 14 -- a lap matching his car number that also coincided with a planned show of support from fans. But the early gains turned into a fight against his handling and escalated to a Lap 121 smack of the wall after a run-in with Kyle Busch on a jammed-up restart.
"We just got run over, big time," Stewart said over the radio back to his crew after Busch's No. 18 drifted up the track to make contact. "Yeah, that was pretty hard there."
After Stewart reported to Johnston that the steering wheel was knocked an inch to the left, Johnston had him come in for multiple stops to fix the scraped-up car's alignment. He resumed the race in 20th place, the next-to-last driver on the lead lap.
From there, Stewart pressed on with a damaged race car, eventually falling a lap down just before the halfway point in the 325-lap race. Not long after he was lapped, his ill-handling car blew a right-front tire on Lap 172, shedding sheet metal to bring out the race's fifth caution period and remove him from contention. He wound up 41st in the final order with a car that Johnston said was too damaged to repair.
Just as the fans in attendance were overwhelmingly pleased to have Stewart back in the field, the team was just as happy to welcome back their quarterback after fielding cars for interim super-subs Jeff Burton and Regan Smith the previous three weeks.
"It's been awesome to have him back all weekend long," Johnston said. "He's the owner, he's the leader and he's the driver, but more importantly, he's the leader. We all look at him to lead us and to guide us. It was good to have him back. We look forward to going on to the rest of the year and getting it back to Victory Lane."
If that goal were to happen Saturday in the regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway, Stewart would seal a last-ditch clinch into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs, thanks to an exemption from NASCAR officials because of the unique circumstances of his absence. Stewart remains mired deep in the Sprint Cup standing, but a regular-season win would punch his postseason ticket.
The goal of finishing Sunday's race in Atlanta ended with disconcerting results, but the team has its leader back. The development that was met with a warm embrace from supportive fans, who got one of their favorites back on a warm night in Atlanta.
"Definitely, we'll be in Richmond and we'll see if can't win Richmond and get in the Chase at the last moment," Johnston said. "It'll be exciting."