By the time Kasey Kahne was celebrating his first win of the season Sunday night, Tony Stewart had already left Atlanta Motor Speedway. The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion saw his hopes for a race win end on lap 172 when his already damaged Chevy lost a tire and smacked the wall. The damage was too much and Stewart’s team was forced to retire the car and he was scored in 41st spot.
That didn’t mean that Stewart wasn’t a winner though. Three days earlier, a solemn and emotional Stewart returned to a track after a three-race absence. Stewart was involved in a dirt track accident on August 9th that resulted in the death of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. A firestorm of controversy both inside NASCAR and in the mainstream media surrounded Stewart and he chose to retreat from the spotlight. He sat out the last three races announcing Thursday he would return to competition at Atlanta. Friday Stewart stepped back into the spotlight as he met with the media for the first time. Stewart didn’t take questions, he simply read an emotional statement he prepared himself.
“This has been one of the toughest tragedies I've ever had to deal with both professionally and personally,” a subdued Stewart said. “This is something that will definitely affect my life forever. This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life.”
Stewart finished by saying that, “We're here to race this weekend, and I appreciate your respect. “
He made his way through the garage to the applause from fans some of whom scrawled “welcome back” messages on the concrete outside Stewart’s garage stall. Stewart was never alone accepting hugs and pats on the back from his fellow drivers and team member’s .Stewart qualified 12th Friday; Sunday evening when he was introduced, the roar from fans echoed throughout the confines of Atlanta Motor Speedway.
When the green flag fell, Stewart didn’t lay back charging forward from his 12th place starting spot to 7th in just two laps.
“To see him on the track was pretty good,” eventual race winner Kasey Kahne said. “The 14, you see it every week, and you just, it's different when he's not in it. Tonight, it goes green, and I was thinking about going high, and we got into Turn 1 on the original start and he was already there, going around me. So I'm like, yup, Tony's back. “
Stewart held his own until contact with Kyle Busch on lap 120 put him into the wall. Stewart’s team was able to repair the damage, but he fell several laps behind and on lap 172, his night ended. Stewart climbed from his damaged racecar and after consulting with his crew and getting word that his night was done, left without comment. His crew chief Chad Johnston was left to speak to the media.
“It’s really good to have him back,” he said. “We are happy to have Johnny Morris here and Rusty Rush and the guys from Code 3 to be here to support him here on kind of his homecoming back. Wish we could have had a better effort and better finish for them but we will move on to Richmond and see if we can’t get it done there.”
The happiness at Stewart’s return was universal throughout the field including Kahne whose mind was still on Stewart even while celebrating his victory.
“It was awesome. It was great to see Tony,” Kahne said. “I've wanted to talk to him for weeks. I think a lot of people have. And haven't been able to…So, it was awesome to see him, awesome just to say, hey. I mean, I know the guy, every event I've ever done for charity events, Tony's supported and he's the first guy to support anything that I've done. Anything for kids. I mean he's such, he has such a good heart.”
It was not only awesome for his team and fellow drivers to see Stewart back in a racecar, but for NASCAR fans as well. Stewart’s swagger and character have been sorely missed in the last three races. As was evident by the cheers of the fans Sunday night, Stewart may not have won the race, but did win the hearts of thousands and thousands of people who work in and follow NASCAR.
Stewart’s return however wasn’t just about the fans and those inside NASCAR.
"Part of that healing process for him was getting back in the race car,” Stewart-Haas Racing director of communications Mike Arning said late Sunday night outside Stewart’s hauler. “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."