It was a familiar sight. The No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet slipping and sliding its way through traffic, its driver displaying his typical "get out of my way, I'm going to the front" attitude.
It was classic Tony Stewart.
At the drop of the green flag of the Oral-B USA 500, it was obvious that the three-time champion had not missed a beat, sliding his car to the outside, next to the wall, making it three-wide.
His three-week absence from racing following the tragic accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. was not apparent, and it was clear that Stewart was back in his comfort zone.
Stewart missed the second half of the 2013 season due to an injury suffered in a non-NASCAR racing incident. When he returned to racing at the beginning of this season, he readily admitted that he wasn't at 100 percent. A break from racing might not have been the best thing.
However, he was fast and flawless from the start of the first practice session Friday. His charge to the front in the opening laps of Sunday night’s race, from 12th to fourth in just 19 laps, was indeed classic Stewart.
For 100 laps, it looked like Stewart could actually challenge the race leaders. Unfortunately, a slow pit stop put him back in the field, where he started, in 12th place, alongside cars with only two fresh tires and surrounded by drivers with ill-handling race cars.
What had been a well-orchestrated return to racing for Stewart ended prematurely when contact with Kyle Busch sent his car into the wall on the restart on Lap 122. The damage sent Stewart onto pit lane for repairs numerous times. His Chad Johnston-led squad worked feverishly to fix the front end of Stewart's Chevy, but they could not adjust the alignment enough to allow Stewart to race at a competitive speed.
Stewart fell back through the field, his speed much slower than the rest until he went a lap down to the leaders.
"Just hang in there. We'll keep working on it," Johnston said over the team radio.
Stewart did hang in there, but a valiant attempt at salvaging his night ended when a right front tire failed on Lap 172.
According to CBS Sports, he could be heard on the radio telling his team, "Sorry guys, you deserve better than this."
Stewart, who had declined comment to the media all weekend, let Johnston speak for the team as the No. 14 Chevrolet sat in the garage, its hood up and its right front fender gone.
"It's been real good and we got off to a good start," Johnston began in a live television interview. "The car has had speed all weekend long and we qualified well. I went into today with some pretty high hopes of finishing well and possibly coming out of here with a win, but it just didn't work out in our favor."
An early race exit meant that one of Stewart's two remaining opportunities to win his way into the Chase was gone.
"We thought we had a shot at winning, and with two races to go to get into the Chase, this was one of the two chances obviously left to get it done and to get into the Chase," added Johnston. "We will just have to lick our wounds and go on to Richmond and see if we can't do it there, and if so it will be pretty exciting."
It was a tough ending for what was to be a triumphant return.
Some will question whether Stewart came back to the track too soon. Some will question whether he should have come back at all. The Sporting News' Bob Pockrass asked, "For a driver who appears to still be grieving, is it best having him behind the wheel of a racecar going more than 200 mph?"
His longtime public-relations manager, Mike Arning, said about Stewart in a statement made on television at the end of the evening, "Racing is who he is."
That might answer both questions.
Stewart now has to look to Richmond, a track where he's had success, with three wins and 11 top-fives in a 16-year NASCAR career. It's the type of track that suits his driving style. This is the time of year when Stewart is at his best, when the weather is hot and the track is slick. It is the time when only those who are the masters at what they do can succeed.
Don't count him out just yet.
Time heals all wounds. And apparently, in Tony Stewart's case, so does racing.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis
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