HAMPTON, Ga. – His racing suit unzipped down to his waist, Tony Stewart walked glumly out of Atlanta Motor Speedway with two issues still hanging over him.
He doesn’t know if he’ll face criminal charges for his car striking and killing another driver.
He’s yet to claim a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
At least he was back on the track.
Stewart’s return to racing was cut short Sunday night when his familiar No. 14 car slammed the wall twice on the way to a dismal 41st-place finish.
But being behind the wheel for any length of time could be a big step toward healing from the tragedy in upstate New York, when 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. was hit by Stewart’s car during a dirt-track race.
“Hopefully this is the step in the right direction for what he needs to get better,” said Sprint Cup driver Denny Hamlin, who finished third in Atlanta.
Ward’s death is being investigated, and authorities say it will take at least two more weeks to determine if criminal charges should be filed.
In the meantime, Stewart turned his focus to Richmond next weekend, knowing that is his final chance to qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs.
“I wish we could have had a better effort and a better finish for him,” crew chief Chad Johnston said. “We’ll go on to Richmond and hope we can do better there.”
After sitting out the last three Cup races, his team saying he needed time to grieve, Stewart got off to a strong start in Atlanta. He ran in the top 10 through the early stages of the race, climbing as high as fourth, but his chance for a Chase-clinching victory was wiped out through no fault of his own.
On lap 122, Kyle Busch’s car drifted high coming out of turn 2 on a restart, collecting Stewart and sending them both into the wall. Fifty laps later, having gone to the pits for repairs but no longer running near the front, Stewart blew a right front tire and smacked the barrier even harder, his car throwing up sparks as he limped back to the garage.
It didn’t take long for the crew to determine there was no way to get the Chevrolet back on the track. Stewart barely made it past the halfway point of the race.
But while he was running, it seemed like the same ol’ Stewart to his competitors.
“When we took green at the start of the race, I was thinking about going high,” said Kasey Kahne, who went on to claim his first victory of the season. “He was already there. I was like, ‘Yep, Tony’s back.”’
After calling it a night, Stewart showed no emotion and didn’t say anything as he was trailed by reporters on the way to his hauler.
“It was good to see him back,” said Mike Arning, a spokesman for Stewart-Haas Racing. “Part of that healing process for him was getting back in the race car. This is what he’s done since he was 8 years old. This is his family. He’s 43 years old. He’s not married. He doesn’t have children. It’s who he is and what he knows.”
Stewart received a big cheer from the crowd when he was introduced before the race. Many fans wrote notes of encouragement on the pavement at the entrance to his garage stall.
“Welcome back Tony.”
“Go Get Em Smoke.”
He started 12th and got by three cars on the very first lap.
“I thought he was pretty strong all weekend,” fellow driver Kyle Larson said. “He’s a tough competitor and really fun to race with.”
In the end, though, Stewart beat only two other drivers in the 43-car field.
He went into seclusion after Ward was killed at a track in upstate New York on Aug. 9. The youngster was struck after he charged onto the track to confront Stewart, angry over a collision that knocked Ward out of the race.
Normally, Cup drivers must compete in every event to be eligible for the title, but NASCAR granted a waiver to Stewart under a rule intended for primarily for medical issues.
Even so, the only way for the three-time Cup champion to qualify for the playoffs was to win at either Atlanta or Richmond.
He’s down to his final shot.
Whether Stewart makes the Chase or not, he felt he needed to be with the team he co-owns to help him cope with Ward’s death. In his only comments of the weekend, he said “This is something that will definitely affect my life forever.”
“This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one has to experience in their life,” he added.
Now, it’s on to Richmond.
“We’re just taking it one day at a time, one week at a time,” Arning said. “This is uncharted territory for all of us.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963