Following a three-week absence, Tony Stewart is returning to competition this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Almost universally, his competitors are welcoming him back.
Shortly after reading an emotional statement in his first public appearance since Aug. 9, Stewart received a hug from teammate Kurt Busch and Busch’s girlfriend Patricia Driscoll. Aric Almirola gave Stewart a thumbs up before climbing into his car for the first of two practice sessions Friday.
“I’m so happy to see Tony back in the car,” Brian Vickers said. “I have so much respect for that guy and we’ve missed him since he’s been away, and I can’t wait to get out there and race with him a little bit.”
Stewart is returning after his involvement in the death of Kevin Ward Jr. during a dirt track sprint car race on Aug. 9 in upstate New York. The three-time NASCAR champion struck and killed an on-foot Ward, 20, who was upset with Stewart after the two raced for position.
The Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s Office is investigating the incident and said it has yet to find any “criminal intent” on Stewart’s part. However, the investigation is not expected to conclude for at least another two weeks, the sheriff’s department said in a statement Friday.
Since Ward’s death, Stewart has been in seclusion and had not spoken publicly until Friday, when he read his brief statement. Throughout his situation, drivers have continually voiced their support for Stewart.
“Very supportive of having him back, and I know based on watching the press conference how emotional this has been for him,” Gordon said.?”I do think that the best thing for him is to be in that race car.?Don’t be surprised if he sits on the pole today.”
Because Stewart missed three starts and didn’t attempt to qualify for two races, there was uncertainty whether he would be eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup should he qualify. But NASCAR granted Stewart a waiver in a decision announced Friday afternoon.
Vickers, who has missed several races in recent seasons due to illness, supported NASCAR granting Stewart an exemption.
“I think it was certainly a rare and tragic situation and I’m glad NASCAR saw the circumstances,” Vickers said. “Listen, as someone who has been out of the car several times for medical incidents, I’m happy to know if I was out of the car for some reason that I’d get a chance to get back in the Chase.”
Said Gordon: “I think the whole intent of eligibility for the Chase is so that somebody doesn’t just go take a vacation after winning a few races. That is the way I look at it. It’s not for unforeseen circumstances or medical or anything like that to prevent you from going out and competing in the Chase.?They want the teams and the drivers that have earned their way in it and deserve to be in it.?I believe if [the No. 14 team] win a race then I believe [Stewart] should be in it.”
To earn a playoff berth, Stewart will need to win Sunday or Sept. 6 at Richmond International Raceway — the regular season finale — to make the playoffs.
If Stewart were to win, the driver most affected would be Greg Biffle. At present Biffle is the last driver among non-winners above the Chase cut-line, and would lose his position to Stewart. When asked for his stance on whether NASCAR should have given Stewart a waiver, Biffle declined to respond.
“I don’t really have a comment on NASCAR’s decision,” Biffle said.
Drivers support Tony Stewart’s return; NASCAR grants Chase waiver – SB Nation