Tony Stewart returned to NASCAR racing Sunday night for the first time since a car driven by Stewart struck and killed a fellow driver who was on foot during a sprint car race three weeks ago.
But despite a warm reception from the fans and a strong start, Stewart had a tough race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga.
The three-time NASCAR champion finished 41st in the 43-car field after his car twice smacked the wall. The second accident was caused by a blown tire, and it forced Stewart out of the race just past the halfway point.
The fatal incident occurred Aug. 9 during a race between sprint cars — which are unrelated to NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series — at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park dirt track in upstate New York.
Stewart and 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. were racing side-by-side when Ward's car crashed into the fence. Ward got out of his car, stood on the track and appeared to be angrily pointing at Stewart when he was struck and killed by Stewart's car as Stewart circled back around.
With Stewart being one of NASCAR's most popular drivers, the story instantly became international news. A public debate about who might have been at fault was fueled by an amateur video that captured the incident, which is still being investigated by Ontario County, N.Y., sheriff's office.
Stewart, 43, then sat out the next three Cup races. When he arrived at the Atlanta track Friday, he read a statement speaking of the "sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience" and said the suffering of Ward's family was "something that I can't possibly imagine."
Stewart also said he missed the three races mainly out of respect for Ward and his family but that being back in his race car "will help me get through this difficult time."
Other Cup drivers gave Stewart a warm welcome in the garage, including four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who said he was "very supportive of having [Stewart] back" and that "the best thing for him is to be in that race car."
Stewart, who started Sunday's race in 12th place, showed no signs of a layoff when the Oral-B USA 500 started at the 1.54-mile Atlanta oval.
Driving high on the track near the wall, he immediately began passing cars and pushed his red-and-black No. 14 Chevrolet into sixth place in the first five laps of the 325-lap race.
But on Lap 122, Stewart's car scraped the outside wall and suffered right-side body damage after being clipped by Kyle Busch's car. Then on Lap 171, Stewart's car blew a right-front tire, sending the car into the wall again and forcing Stewart out of the race.
After Stewart climbed from his car he left without comment. His crew chief, Chad Johnston, said the team thought Stewart had a winning car but "it just didn't work out in our favor."
The race next week, in Richmond, Va., is the last race before NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Cup title playoff. Stewart needs to win that race to gain a berth in the 16-driver Chase.
Normally a driver also must participate in all 26 of the regular-season events to even be eligible for the Chase. But NASCAR last week granted Stewart a waiver to that rule.
There were several emotional moments before Sunday's race began.
During the driver introductions in front of the main grandstands, Stewart received a loud ovation with many of the spectators standing as they clapped.
Stewart, his team and sponsor executives later circled together and bowed their heads in prayer on pit road. Some fans also wrote messages of support on the white wall of Stewart's pit stall.
Then as Stewart drove slowly around the track during the pace laps before the race started, he radioed to his crew: "Guys, be careful, be safe down there. I appreciate everything."