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).”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar: Turn 5 gives drivers fits in Friday’s second practice at Barber Motorsports Park

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You’ve heard of the Fast Six in IndyCar, right?

Well, Friday’s second practice session for Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama was the Frustrating Five – Turn 5, that is.

It almost might be easier to list those drivers that were not bitten by the cantankerous turn on the 2.3-mile Barber Motorsports Park layout in Birmingham, Alabama.

Close to 10 drivers in the 23-driver field suffered issues in the turn, ranging from running off the grass and back on, to getting stuck and having to be towed out, to suffering damage.

But by the time the one-hour session was over, Josef Newgarden took a big step towards defending his win from last year’s race there, being fastest in Friday’s second of two practice sessions.

Newgarden covered the 2.3-mile permanent road course in a speed of 122.786 mph at a best lap time of 1:07.4345 minutes.

Spencer Pigot was second (125.599 mph/1:07.5372), followed by Sebastien Bourdais (122.129 mph/1:07.7971), Will Power (122.107 mph/1:07.8092) and last week’s winner at Long Beach, Alexander Rossi (122.065 mph/1:07.8326).

Sixth through 10th-fastest were Scott Dixon (122.044 mph/1:07.8445), Ryan Hunter-Reay (121.975 mph/1:07.8829), Takuma Sato (121.652 mph/1:08.0628), Marco Andretti (121.579 mph/1:08.1040) and Graham Rahal (121.572 mph/1:08.1076).

Now, speaking of all the incidents, here’s a list.

INCIDENTS:

* Right after rookie Matheus Leist spun early in the session in Turn 5, fellow rookie Zach Veach spun with about 45 minutes left in the session in Turn 5. Graham Rahal had to take evasive action to miss Veach.

But that wasn’t all, as Sebastien Bourdais followed in almost the same spot with a spin of his own roughly a minute later, and then Gabby Chaves also had his problems in the same turn, going into the grass but avoiding the gravel.

* Simon Pagenaud joined his Penske Racing teammate Josef Newgarden in the Turn 5 gravel. Newgarden spun into the gravel in the first practice session.

* Rookie Rene Binder, who has struggled in his inaugural season, continued to have issues, running into the wall and causing damage to the front end, needing a tow truck to get him righted.

It appeared Binder snapped part of the front suspension in the incident.

* Turn 5 saw James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan run off-track late in the session, but they were able to continue.

ALSO OF NOTE:

* The third and final practice of the weekend will take place Saturday morning at 10:50 a.m. ET, followed by qualifying beginning at 4:05 p.m. ET, to be televised live on CNBC (with an encore performance at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN). The race, to be televised live Sunday on NBCSN, is slated to start at 3:30 p.m. ET.

* However, the weather forecast does not look promising for Sunday’s race. As of 1 p.m. ET today, the forecast calls for 100 percent rain throughout the day.

* Dixon has had an incredible record at Barber Motorsports Park, with seven podium finishes in eight starts there. Except for one thing: he has yet to win a race there. But he does have five runner-up and two other third-place showings on the permanent road course.

Follow @JerryBonkowski