HAMPTON, Ga. - What looked like a promising return to NASCAR for Tony Stewart turned into disappointment Sunday night when his car hit the wall just past the halfway point of the Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, sending the three-time Sprint Cup Champion back to the garage and ending his evening early.
Stewart, who started 12th, began charging to the front, making an aggressive pass of Ryan Newman near the wall on the second lap to take seventh place. He was up to fourth by lap 19.
He lost ground in the pits on the first caution when he got boxed in on pit road, dropping him back to his starting position.
But he continued to look competitive until contact with Kyle Busch on lap 122 sent Stewart into the wall and knocked out the alignment on Stewart's front end.
Stewart's team brought him into the pits numerous times under caution to try to fix the issue. He got back on the track but had fallen one lap down when he blew a front right tire on lap 172 and hit the wall again.
Stewart declined to speak with the media after taking his Chevrolet into the garage. Friday he read a prepared statement to the press, his first public appearance since the car he was driving struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint car race in upstate New York. Officials in the case said Friday that the investigation will take at least another two weeks.
Stewart missed three Sprint Cup races following the Ward tragedy, citing his own grieving and respect for the Ward family.
Friday he was given an exemption by NASCAR that would allow him to qualify for the Chase for the Championship playoffs despite not participating in all the regular-season events. Per the new playoff qualification rules, he would need a win at Richmond next Saturday in the regular-season finale to make the Chase.