It was hardly the race Tony Stewart envisioned when he decided to return to the track Sunday night in Atlanta -- his first NASCAR competition since striking and killing Kevin Ward Jr. in an on-track collision three weeks ago.
From the outset of the Oral-B USA 500, Stewart showed no hesitation when he overtook eight drivers and worked his way into the top five, but cautions and two wrecks marred his promising start, which ultimately ended prematurely.
Stewart's car was forced to the garage on lap 173 after he blew his right front tire and skidded along the wall, causing sizable damage to the front of his car.
He could be heard on the radio telling his team, "Sorry guys, you deserve better than this."
It was the second wreck Stewart had been involved with during Sunday's race. Kyle Busch swung high to the outside around a corner and clipped the front left of Stewart's car in lap 123. It took multiple pit stops to repair the initial damage and Stewart fell to 21st. Stewart was as high as fourth early Sunday night.
Stewart declined an interview after the second wreck but crew chief Chad Johnston did speak with ESPN. "We got off to a good start. We went in to today with hopes of finishing pretty well and possibly a win, but it just didn't work out in our favor."
"It's really good to have [Tony] back. ... It's kind of his homecoming back. We wish we could've had a better result and effort, but we'll try to get it done at Richmond [next Saturday]."
Stewart must win next week's race to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Tony Stewart received a standing ovation from fans during driver introductions ahead of Sunday night's Oral-B 500 in Atlanta. It was Stewart's first race in three weeks following the on-track collision that killed Kevin Ward Jr. on August 9.
Fans also roared for Stewart ahead of qualifying on Friday night as well. It's been an emotional three weeks for Stewart, who remained secluded from both the media and his fellow drivers while grieving.
"This has been one of the toughest tragedies I've ever had to deal with, both professionally and personally. This will affect my life forever," he said on Friday, his first public comments since the crash. "This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one ever has to experience in their life."
Stewart missed three Sprint Cup races, but NASCAR granted an exemption on Friday and he'll be allowed to participate in the Chase for the Sprint Cup should he win one of the season's final two races. Many drivers were supportive of the unique exemption, usually reserved for medical reasons. Other drivers were just happy to have Stewart back on the track.
"I do think that the best thing for him is to just be in that race car," Jeff Gordon said.
Far from timid, Stewart burst out early after starting 12th on Sunday evening and quickly worked his way up to fourth after just 35 laps.