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.’”