HAMPTON, Ga. — On Friday, NASCAR competitors welcomed Tony Stewart back to the track.
On Sunday, it was the fans' turn.
Stewart, in his first appearance in a Sprint Cup race since Aug. 3, received a thunderous standing ovation during driver introductions before the Oral-B 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Kasey Kahne won the night race. His first win of the season guaranteed him a spot in the Chase for the Championship.
Stewart made no sponsor or public appearances before the mandatory drivers meeting two hours before the race's start.
He started 12th, and as the pace laps ticked off, he radioed his crew: "Guys, be careful. Be safe down there. I appreciate everything."
But Stewart's return ended about halfway through the race when he hit the wall for a second time. The first came after a collision with Kyle Busch. Then on Lap 172, his right front tire blew.
"I wish we could have had a better effort and a better finish for him," his crew chief, Chad Johnston, said. "We'll go on to Richmond (on Saturday) and hope we can do better there."
When Stewart got to the garage, he stayed in the car while his crew jacked it up and went to work. About five minutes later, he climbed out, swigged a bottled water and looked under the hood.
He hung around for a few more minutes, but when he realized he was done for the night, he headed through the garage to his hauler parked on the other side. Stewart declined to talk to reporters.
"It was good to see him back in the car," 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."
Making his first comments on Friday since his car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. in a dirt-track race Aug. 9 in upstate New York, Stewart said he looked forward to returning.
His competitors and friends said it was likely the best sanctuary for him.
"I think once you get in the car, your mind kind of turns off and you can focus on what you're doing and how you're making laps, and that's really all you think about," said Kevin Harvick, who started on the pole.
The Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff's Department continues to investigate the Aug. 9 fatality at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, where a sprint car driven by Stewart struck and killed the 20-year-old Ward, who was walking on the track while the race was under caution.
Stewart did not race the next day at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and sat out at Michigan and Bristol, Tenn., as well. Friday and Saturday, drivers took turns going up to Stewart, usually in the garage, to speak briefly. Sunday, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon put his arm around Stewart as both left the drivers meeting.
"He's an important part of the series," Gordon said Friday. "I think we're all happy to have him back. We just hate what the circumstances were as to why he wasn't here."