Tony Stewart will end three weeks of seclusion and return to NASCAR racing this weekend in Atlanta, his first public appearance since his car struck and killed a fellow driver at a dirt-track race Aug. 9, Stewart’s team said Thursday.
Stewart will hold a news conference Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, site of Sunday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, Stewart-Haas Racing said.
They will be Stewart’s first public comments since his car struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. while Ward was on foot during a non-NASCAR, sprint-car race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York.
As the story and a graphic amateur video of the incident sparked a nationwide debate about who was at fault, Stewart sat out the next three Cup races at Watkins Glen, N.Y., Michigan International Speedway and Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. Replacement drivers drove Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet.
Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president, said in a statement Thursday that Stewart “has received all necessary clearances” to return to the Cup series.
“NASCAR has remained in constant contact with his race team and we will stay very close to this situation as Stewart returns to competition,” O’Donnell said.
Stewart, a three-time Cup series champion, has not been charged in connection with the fatal incident, but the Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s Office is still investigating.
That probably will limit how much Stewart, 43, will say about the incident. Stewart said in a statement the day after Ward’s death that “there aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident.”
The incident started when Stewart and Ward were racing side by side and Ward’s car crashed into a fence. Ward then climbed from his car, walked on the track and appeared to be angrily pointing at Stewart when he was struck as Stewart’s car came back around.
NASCAR President Mike Helton also planned to meet with the media Friday in Atlanta. One question he’ll probably get concerns Stewart’s eligibility for NASCAR’s 10-race Chase for the Cup title playoff.
Under a revised format implemented this year, a win during the 26-race regular season virtually assures a driver a berth in the 16-driver Chase. Stewart has not won a race this year. But there are two races left before the Chase, in Atlanta and next week in Richmond, Va.
The rules require drivers to either qualify or race in all of the regular-season races to be eligible for the Chase, unless NASCAR grants a waiver. Should Stewart win either of the next two races, the question of whether NASCAR would consider a waiver would come into play.
Brett Frood, Stewart-Haas’ executive vice president, said two weeks ago that “the Chase is of the lowest priority as it relates to Tony right now.”