On Friday, NASCAR competitors got their chance to welcome Tony Stewart back to the track.
Sunday night, it was the fans’ turn.
Stewart, making his first appearance in a NASCAR race since Aug. 3 at Pocono Raceway, received a thunderous standing ovation from fans during driver introductions prior to the start of the Oral-B 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Stewart made no sponsor or public appearances before the mandatory drivers meeting two hours before the scheduled start and driver introductions, which began around 6:55 p.m.
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Stewart – nicknamed “Smoke” – started 12th in the race which went green at 7:52 p.m.
As the pace laps ticked off, Stewart radioed his crew, “Guys be careful, be safe down there. I appreciate everything.”
Making his first comments on Friday since his involvement in an incident in the Aug. 9 dirt track race in upstate New York that left sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. dead, Stewart said he looked forward to getting back behind the wheel of his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
His competitors and friends agreed 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 driver Kevin Harvick, who started on the pole.
“The hardest part is getting out of the car and having to deal with everything else and your mind wanders. But inside that race car, there is just something about being in there and being in that zone and not having to listen to anybody else.”
The Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s department continues to investigate the Aug. 9 incident which took place at Canandaigua (N.Y.) 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 in the Sprint Cup Series event the next day at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and sat out races at Michigan and Bristol, Tenn., as well.
Throughout the day Friday and Saturday at Atlanta, drivers took turns going up to Stewart – usually in the garage – to speak briefly.
Sunday, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon put his around Stewart as both left the drivers meeting and spoke quietly to him.
“He’s an important part of the series, in my opinion. He’s one of the best race car drivers I’ve ever raced against. I respect him so much,” Gordon said Friday. “And, as well as the giving heart and soul the guy has.
“On the track you know that if Tony Stewart is out there, you’re going to have to deal with him to win that race or to get that position. He’s just an awesome race car driver.
“I think we’re all happy to have him back. We just hate what the circumstances were as to why he wasn’t here.”
NASCAR has already granted Stewart a waiver for missing the past three races so should he win at Atlanta or next weekend at Richmond, Va., he would be eligible to compete in the championship Chase.
Before the race, fans with pit passes wandered pit road with some leaving notes on the wall alongside Stewart’s team’s pit stall.
“Welcome Back Tony. Go Get Em Smoke” one read.
“Never Quit Smoke!” read another.