Tony Stewart was certainly the center of attention Sunday as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series prepared for 500 miles of action at 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Making his first start since being involved in a sprint-car incident that claimed the life of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. on Aug. 9, Stewart had many eyes on him as he prepared to race his familiar No. 14 Chevrolet for the first time in four weeks.
Unfortunately for Stewart, his much-anticipated return didn't go as he and many others had hoped.
Running just outside the top 20 and a lap down after an earlier collision with Kyle Busch and then the outside wall, Stewart slapped the wall hard with the right side of his car on Lap 172 after losing a right-front tire.
He pulled his damaged car into the garage and never returned to the race, finishing 41st.
"Sorry guys," the driver radioed to his crew. "You deserve better than that."
Stewart declined a television reporter's request for an interview after getting out of his car, but crew chief Chad Johnston said it was good for the team to have its driver back this weekend.
"We got off to a good start," said Johnston. "The car's had speed all weekend long. We qualified well. We went into today with pretty good hopes of running well and possibly coming out of here with a win. It just didn't work out in our favor.
"We got into a little trouble with the 18 (Busch), got into the outside wall, knocked the tow out of it, and had a lot of heavy right-side damage. We were just trying to fix that and salvage what we could out of the day, then blew a right front there just before that caution came out.
Before his night took a dramatic turn for the worse, Stewart had reason for optimism.
During pre-race driver introductions for the Oral-B USA 500, the three-time Sprint Cup champion received a loud ovation from the fans in the stands, and had a number of drivers and crew members approach him in support.
Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris, who recently said he proudly supported Stewart, was standing by Stewart's side before the three-time Sprint Cup champion climbed into his car. Also on hand was Rusty Rush, owner of Rush Truck Centers -- another sponsor on the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing entry.
"We were really happy to have Johnny Morris here and Rusty Rush and the guys from Code 3 to be here and support (Stewart) in kind of his homecoming back," Johnston said. "Wish we could have had a better effort and a better finish for him, but we'll move on to Richmond and see if we can't get it done there."
On the track before the green flag waved at Atlanta, Stewart told his team, "Guys, be careful. Be safe down there. Appreciate everything."
Taking the green flag in the 12th spot, Stewart was quick to make moves in the opening laps. Utilizing the high line around the 1.54-mile track, Stewart sliced and diced his way to the sixth spot by Lap 5.
The march forward continued for Stewart, as he moved his way up to fourth by Lap 19.
After the first pit stop of the day, Stewart rejoined the race in sixth and found a nice groove, moving up to fifth during a long green-flag run.
During the second green flag run of the night, Stewart had issues getting back into the gas off the corners, and asked for another tire pressure adjustment on the next stop.
Struggling to make the bottom groove work, Stewart fell to 12th on the next green-flag run.
Restarting the race in the 12th spot on Lap 121, Stewart dropped through the pack when he couldn't get the top groove going. Racing on the outside of Kyle Busch, Stewart was a victim of circumstance when Busch's No. 18 bobbled and shot up the track into Stewart's car.
The contact sent Stewart into the outside wall, damaging both cars.
"We just got ran over big time," Stewart radioed to his team.
When Marcos Ambrose lost an engine and brought out the fourth caution of the night, Stewart hit pit road for repairs to the right side of the car. Making multiple stops, the team checked the tow of the car and did their best to pull the fenders away from the right-side tires.
Stewart was able to remain on the lead lap, but fell to 21st -- the final car on the lead lap by Lap 145.
By Lap 165, Stewart was a lap down and he remained just outside the top 20 before his accident on Lap 172.