— -- NASCAR superstar Tony Stewart was back behind the wheel, racing for the first time tonight since his car knocked a young driver to his death in another race three weeks ago, but didn't get to the finish line.
Stewart's car hit the wall twice in the ORAL-B USA 500 Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The second time came after his right front tire blew out on lap 172, ending his night. He drove his battered car to the garage and then left without speaking to reporters.
He had also hit the wall earlier after a collision with Kyle Busch, and had to have work completed to the right side of his car.
"I wish we could have had a better effort and a better finish for him," his crew chief Chad Johnston said.
"I went into today with some pretty good hopes of finishing well," Johnston said, adding, "It just didn't work out."
Jeff Gordon, the points leader, and other drivers supported the decision to grant Stewart the waiver.
Stewart, who skipped three NASCAR races in the wake of the accident that took the life of dirt track racer Kevin Ward Jr., was to be in the 12th position for the start of the race, the next-to-last before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Stewart can still make the 16-car Chase field with a win next week at Richmond, thanks to a waiver announced by NASCAR on Friday. NASCAR requires its drivers to compete in every event to make the playoff, but Stewart received the waiver that is normally applied to a driver who misses a race for medical reasons.
Before his return to the track, Stewart sent a message to Ward's family.
"I want Kevin's father, Kevin Sr, and his mother Pam, and his sisters ... to know that every day I'm thinking about them and praying for them," Stewart said Friday.
"This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one has to experience in their life," he said. "That being said, I know that the pain and the mourning that Kevin Ward's family and his friends are experiencing, is something I can't possibly imagine.
"I've taken the last couple of weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family and to cope with the accident my own way," Stewart said. "It's given me the time to think about life and how easy it is to take it for granted."
This weekend has, in some ways, been business as usual for the NASCAR champ, who placed in the top 20 in two practice sessions Saturday, racing as the cloud of an investigation looms over the track.
As Stewart gets back on the track in his car -- number 14 -- some question whether now is the right time for him to return.
"There are so many issues out there that people want to know and it would be great to hear Tony Stewart talking about those issues, telling us what happened," ABC News sports analyst Christine Brennan said. "The reality is he's not yet ready to do that and yet he's ready to race -- something doesn't seem right about that."
The investigation into the death of Ward is expected to last at least another two weeks. Stewart has not been charged with a crime, and investigators tell ABC News they haven't found any evidence to suggest he intended to strike and kill Ward.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.