AMPTON, Ga. — Tony Stewart's return to NASCAR is official.
He started the Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night in 12th position and ran as high as fourth in the opening 100 of 325 laps.
Stewart found trouble on a Lap 122 restart when Kyle Busch moved high on the track and forced Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet into the outside wall. Busch's car also was damaged.
"We just got run over big-time!" Stewart radioed his crew. "I hit the wall pretty hard there."
Stewart said his steering wheel is "about an inch to the left." He fell from 11th to 19th position before making a stop on pit road for repairs, the first of several to repair damage to the right front.
Stewart climbed to fourth early in the race before developing handling problems that dropped him back into the teens.
Before the green flag, Stewart walked out during driver introductions to a chorus of cheers, the loudest and longest among the 43 drivers, as some fans in the frontstretch grandstand stood and clapped.
The response drowned out the public address announcer's introduction of Stewart.
He waved a couple times and shook hands with each person on the stage before taking the customary lap around the track in the back of a pickup.
In the half-hour before the start of the race, Stewart, standing beside his No. 14 Chevrolet, was visited by sponsor representatives Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops and Rusty Rush of Rush Enterprises, who earlier Sunday told USA TODAY Sports 'We stand by Tony'.
Also in the crowd were Eddie Jarvis, Stewart's long-time business manager; Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood; and Mike Arning, Stewart's public relations director.
Arning motioned for a member of a network camera crew to remove a boom microphone from near the heads of Stewart and his associates. The group gathered in a circle and prayed before Stewart climbed back into his car for the first time after skipping three races.
Fans, eager to welcome one of NASCAR's most popular and polarizing figures back to the sport, scrawled messages of support on his pit wall.
"Guys be careful. Be safe down there. Appreciate it," Stewart radioed his crew as he came around to take the green flag.
The three-time Sprint Cup champion remains under investigation in the death of sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr., whom Stewart struck and killed during a race at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park on Aug. 9.
Stewart, who sat out races at Watkins Glen International, Michigan International Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway while grieving for Ward Jr., qualified 12th for the race at the 1.54-mile oval. He has won here three times.
On Friday, NASCAR granted him a waiver to participate in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. So despite him missing time in the car during the regular season, Stewart will make the 16-driver championship field if he wins Sunday night or next weekend at Richmond International Raceway.