HAMPTON, Ga. — Tony Stewart’s return to the track ended only a little over halfway through his race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Stewart hit the wall for the second time after his right front tire blew out on Lap 172, ending his night. Stewart drove his battered car to the garage and then exited the track without speaking to reporters.

He finished in 41st place.

Stewart’s crew chief, Chad Johnston, said the 14 team was disappointed but will now start focusing on next weekend’s race in Richmond, Virginia.

“I wish we could have had a better effort and a better finish for him,” Johnston said. “We’ll go on to Richmond and hope we can do better there.”

Stewart first went into the wall following a collision with Kyle Busch, requiring work to the right side of his car.

“I went into today with some pretty good hopes of finishing well,” Johnston said. “It just didn’t work out.”

Stewart skipped three Sprint Cup races after his car struck and killed a fellow driver in a dirt-track race in upstate New York. He decided to return this week, needing to win either at Atlanta or the next race at Richmond to claim a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

The three-time Cup champion received a big cheer when he was introduced before the race. Starting in the 12th spot, Stewart ran in the top 10 early, getting as high as fourth.

Then, on Lap 122 after a restart, Busch’s No. 18 machine got loose coming out of Turn 2 and banged into Stewart, sending both cars against the wall.

Stewart carried on but dropped back to 21st.

Stewart made no sponsor or public appearances before the mandatory drivers meeting two hours before the scheduled start and before driver introductions, which began around 6:55 p.m.

As the pace laps ticked off, Stewart radioed his crew, “Guys be careful, be safe down there. I appreciate everything.”

Stewart said Friday 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 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.”

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 arm 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.”