Tony Stewart’s comeback hopes end with rough 41st-place finish at Atlanta

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HAMPTON, Ga. – It was not the comeback that Tony Stewart had hoped for.

Having missed the last three races due to the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy, Stewart’s hopes of a strong run and finish in Sunday’s Oral-B USA 500 ended with a disappointing 41st-place finish Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Stewart started strong, moving from his No. 12 qualifying position up to as high as fourth place early in the 325-lap race.

But an incident with Kyle Busch on Lap 122 all but ended Stewart’s chances for a possible chance at a win or even a top-five.

Things got even worse on Lap 172, but before we get to that, a look first at the good parts of the evening for the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet:

Starting 12th, Stewart drove like he was piloting a rocket as soon as the green flag dropped. He was up to ninth after just two laps, up to seventh after four and up to sixth after six laps.

In other words, he gained an average of one position on each of the first six laps.

MORE: Tony Stewart the obvious fan favorite during pre-race introductions at Atlanta

He eventually climbed up to fourth by Lap 16, and remained in that spot until the first caution on Lap 38 (due to debris).

Stewart got caught in traffic on pit road and dropped back one spot to fifth place when the green flag fell on Lap 44, and then fell back two more spots to seventh on the following lap.

Stewart essentially floated between 5th and 11th for nearly the next 80 laps before Busch cut off and made contact with Stewart on Lap 122.

Busch appeared to try and slide up in front of Stewart, but seemed to misjudge the distance between the two cars.

While there was no caution flag, both drivers suffered damage on the right sides of their respective cars.

Both cars came into the pits one lap later when Marcos Ambrose suffered engine, bringing out a caution flag.

Stewart was forced to make several stops under caution to get the right side damage repaired, while Busch was able to have his damage fixed on just one stop.

MORE: Lessons learned from Dale Earnhardt death readily seen in way NASCAR has dealt with Tony Stewart tragedy

As it turned out, Stewart remained on the lead lap in 21st position until Lap 161 when race leader Matt Kenseth passed him, putting Stewart one lap down.

Things went from bad to worse on Lap 172 when Stewart’s car ran into the Turn 2 wall, sustaining significant damage. He took his car back to the garage and it appeared his night was over at that point.

“Sorry guys, you deserve better than this,” Stewart said to his crew over the team radio as he limped into the pits with extensive damage to the right front, including a shredding right front tire.

Stewart declined to be interviewed after taking his car, but crew chief Chad Johnston spoke with ESPN afterward.

“We got off to a good start,” Johnston said. “We went into today with hopes of finishing pretty well and possibly a win, but it just didn’t work out in our favor.

“It’s really good to have (Stewart) back … it’s kind of his homecoming back. We wish we could have had a better result and effort, but we’ll try to get it done at Richmond (next Saturday).”

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NHRA: Brittany Force cleared to race this weekend in Phoenix after bad wreck 2 weeks ago

Photo: John Force Racing
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Drag racing is a Force family tradition. So, too, is not keeping a Force family member down.

Just 12 days after the most serious wreck of her six-year drag racing career, Brittany Force and John Force Racing announced late Thursday afternoon that the defending 2017 NHRA Top Fuel champion has been medically cleared and will indeed race in this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix, Arizona.

“I flew into Phoenix early this (Thursday) morning and headed straight out to the race track to meet up with my team,” Force said. “I suited up and got belted back into my car that I ran all last season.

“It honestly felt good to be strapped back in and I was surprised how comfortable I was. I’m looking forward to getting back in my car tomorrow (Friday’s first two rounds of qualifying) and getting back in the swing of things with my guys.”

The 31-year-old Force, one of four daughters of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, suffered a concussion and bruising after the hard crash she was involved in on February 11 in the first round of eliminations of the season-opening NHRA Lucas Oil Winternationals in Pomona, California.

Shortly after leaving the starting line in a race vs. Terry Haddock, Force’s dragster crossed from the right to left lanes, impacted the retaining wall with a very hard lateral crash, bounced off, spun, went on its side and briefly caught fire after crossing the finish line wheels-up.

While she is still recovering from the bruising, Force feels strong enough to get back behind the wheel. Getting back in the race car could be the best medicine of all, since she has three runner-up finishes in Phoenix, including back-to-back second-place showings in both the 2016 and 2017 national events.

The three-day event kicks off Friday with qualifying rounds at 4 and 6:30 p.m. ET, the same times as Saturday’s qualifying. Final eliminations begin at 1 p.m. ET Sunday.