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

Aug 31, 2014, 10:07 PM EDT

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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

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