HAMPTON, Ga. - After three weeks of pain, sorrow, and horribly misinformed speculation, the Tony Stewart story returned to where it belonged: the race track. But for Stewart, the night ended early, and perhaps that's for the best.
This marked Stewart's first race since the accident in upstate New York that resulted in the death of fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr. Stewart has remained in seclusion since the incident, not speaking publicly and missing three races. His return to race in Atlanta brought with it many questions, questions that Stewart himself was not willing or able to answer.
Certainly, Stewart didn't race to lose, or to leave the track more than 150 laps early. But this weekend almost surely wasn't about victory, or qualifying for the Chase, or satisfying sponsors, or anything else other than just allowing Stewart to spend some time in the one place where he's still in control.
The weekend began with an emotional press conference, and ended with Stewart's wrecked No. 14 being loaded onto a hauler, the result of a blown right front tire and a collision with the wall. Along the way, Stewart received the support of both NASCAR, which granted him a waiver into the Chase should he qualify, and fans, who showed their support with cheers, signs, and scrawled messages on the white paint of the wall in front of his pit stall.
Stewart's first true public appearance since the tragedy came when he stepped out onto the narrow catwalk of the drivers' stage at Atlanta, and while he looked downcast, he entered to the loudest cheers of the afternoon:
Here's Tony Stewart at driver introductions. He walked onstage to deafening cheers. pic.twitter.com/arobiwdp36— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) August 31, 2014
Stewart started 12th, and raced as high as third before sliding back into the pack. On lap 122, Kyle Busch collided with Stewart, sending the No. 14 into the wall. A few dozen laps later, Stewart's right front tire gave way, ravaging Stewart's car and ending any chance of a reasonable finish.
After driving the car to the garage, Stewart dodged the horde of waiting media and disappeared inside his hauler. He'll presumably race again at Richmond, and from a purely competitive perspective, that race would be his last opportunity to make the Chase this year.
However, Stewart's reps have said the Chase is the last thing on Stewart's mind. Racing for racing's sake, as grief therapy and a return to whatever will now pass for normalcy, is all that's on the table right now.