Stewart's Race Ends Early

Tony Stewart

Stewart parked his car after a blown tire sent him into the wall at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo: Getty Images)

HAMPTON, Ga. - Tony Stewart’s sanctuary couldn’t take him 500 miles Sunday night.

In his first race since he struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. in a sprint car feature on Aug. 9 at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, Stewart parked his NASCAR Sprint Cup car after a blown tire sent him into the wall at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Stewart finished 41st.

Fellow competitors said Stewart’s return to the car could provide a sanctuary - if only for a short while - as he grieved Ward’s death and a police investigation lingered.

Stewart’s respite Sunday lasted 170 laps in the 325-lap race.

His troubles began after contact with Kyle Busch’s car on Lap 122. That sent Stewart’s car into the wall and damaged the car. That later caused the right front tire to blow.

“It’s very disappointing,’’ crew chief Chad Johnston said. “His first week back, we were hoping for bigger things.’’

Stewart did not speak to the media after exiting his car.

His day, leading up to race was as quiet.

Stewart arrived to the drivers meeting seven minutes before it started and sat between teammate Danica Patrick and Johnston.

While Stewart prepared for the race, fans wrote messages of support in his pit box. Fan comments ranged from “Never Quit Smoke!” to “Welcome Back Tony” and “Prayers Answered.’’

After arriving backstage for driver intros, Stewart sat in the shade next to Carl Edwards and talked with, among others, Brian Vickers, Jimmie Johnson and Busch.

Fans gave Stewart a thundering and sustained ovation when he was introduced. He acknowledged them by raising his hand twice. When he reached his car, Stewart faced a crowd of onlookers and close friends. Among those with Stewart were Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris, who issued an impassioned statement Saturday supporting Stewart, and W.M. “Rusty” Rush, CEO, chairman and president of Rush Truck Centers, another sponsor of Stewart’s team.

Stewart was ready when the green flag waved. He charged from his 12th starting spot to seventh in two laps, running the high line. He was fourth by the 18th lap.

Stewart, who often doesn’t say much on the radio, was quiet throughout. After his quick charge into the top five, Stewart said his car was a “little tight.’’

One of the early challenges he faced was on the first pit stop on Lap 40. As he came down pit road, he radioed Johnston that he couldn’t find his pit box. Johnston called him into the box without issue.

The handling in Stewart’s car gradually went away and he was back to 12th after 100 laps.

Then came the contact with Busch.

“We just got run over big time,’’ Stewart radioed his team.

The caution came out moments later for Marcos Ambrose’s blown engine. That gave Stewart’s team time to make repairs. He made several stops for repairs and restarted 20th, a spot ahead of Busch. They were the final two cars on the lead lap.

The damage, though, was too much for Stewart to overcome.

“I promise I’m doing the best I can,’’ Stewart radioed Johnston on lap 155.

“She’s hurt pretty bad,’’ Johnston said. “We’re just going to have to ... make the best out of it’’

Stewart went a lap down at the halfway point of the race.

The tire gave a few laps later.

“Sorry guys, you deserve better than this,’’ Stewart radioed his team.

Now, it’s on to Richmond this week. That race marks Stewart’s final chance to make the Chase. NASCAR has granted him a waiver, so if he wins there, he’ll be among the 16 drivers in the Chase.

“We’ll see if we can’t win Richmond and get into the Chase at the last moment,’’ Johnston said.

Stewart, though, will have to wait until Friday to return to the car, return to his sanctuary. 

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