CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Tony Stewart will return to Sprint Cup competition Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, ending a three-race hiatus taken after he struck and killed a fellow driver during a dirt-track race.
The three-time NASCAR champion has not raced since his car hit Kevin Ward Jr. at an Aug. 9 sprint car event in upstate New York. Stewart pulled out of the NASCAR race at Watkins Glen the next morning, then skipped the races at Michigan and Bristol Motor Speedway.
Stewart, who was described by police as “visibly shaken” the night of Ward’s death, has been in seclusion ever since. Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood had said the team was putting no timetable on his return to the No. 14 Chevrolet and the emphasis was on giving Stewart time needed to get him “in a better place than he is.”
Stewart’s only comment since Ward’s death was a statement the day after the crash in which he said “there aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.”
Ward had climbed from his car after it had spun while racing for position with Stewart. The 20-year-old walked down onto the racing surface waving his arms in an apparent attempt to confront Stewart.
Authorities said the first car to pass Ward had to swerve to miss hitting him. The front of Stewart’s car then appeared to clear Ward, but Ward was struck by the right rear tire and hurtled through the air. He died of blunt force trauma.
It was not clear if the 43-year-old NASCAR superstar will be charged in Ward’s death. Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero has said investigators did not have any evidence to support criminal intent by Stewart. Povero said this week he has no new updates on where the investigation stands.
Meanwhile, Stewart will move forward with his career and attempt to salvage his season.
NASCAR released a statement Thursday saying that Stewart was eligible to return because he “has received all necessary clearances required to return to all racing activities.”
Stewart, who has 48 career Cup wins in 542 starts, is one of the biggest stars in the garage. His peers have been protective of him as questions emerged in the aftermath of the crash, and it pained them that Stewart was grieving in private and had cut off communication with so many of them.
NASCAR rules state a driver must attempt to either qualify or race the car in every points-paying event to be eligible for Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, unless a waiver is granted.
Since Ward’s death, NASCAR has announced a rule that prohibits drivers from exiting from a crashed or disabled vehicle — unless it is on fire — until safety personnel arrive. Last week, Denny Hamlin crashed while leading at Bristol and stayed in his car until safety personnel arrived.
But Hamlin then exited his vehicle and angrily tossed a safety device at Kevin Harvick as he passed by moments later. He was not penalized.
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