Mike Helton: Tony Stewart would be eligible for Chase
August 29, 2014, Staff report, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Full coverage of Tony Stewart incident
NASCAR President Mike Helton said Tony Stewart would be eligible for the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup if he wins one of the final two regular-season races.
Helton said that "this has been a very unique set of circumstances to Tony and to out sport. As the league, it's our responsibility to try and make decisions that are correct and right. Sometimes we evaluate circumstances that are given to us and then we make those decisions as correctly as we can. After evaluating the circumstances around this occurrence, we've come to the conclusion that Tony would be eligible to participate in the Chase if he were to earn a spot in it."
At Atlanta Motor Speedway, Stewart is set to participate in his first Sprint Cup Series after sitting out the past three races.
Stewart is 26th in points. To be eligible for this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, a driver must attempt to qualify for all 26 races leading up to the Chase and be in the top 30 in points. However, according to NASCAR, for rare instances the requirement can be waived as long as the driver is in the top 30.
Stewart missed three races following his involvement in a sprint car racing incident earlier this month that resulted in driver Kevin Ward Jr. suffering fatal injuries at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, a half-mile dirt track on the Ontario County Fairgrounds. The investigation regarding the incident is ongoing. Stewart's racing plans outside NASCAR have been canceled and will not resume until further notice.
Denny Hamlin experienced his own form of exemption into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs after he missed the fifth race of the season, at Auto Club Speedway in March, with an eye injury. Five races later, Hamlin scored a regular-season victory at Talladega Superspeedway to clinch a Chase berth.
While he didn't know all the particulars of Stewart's situation and his three-race absence, Hamlin said he had no problem with the three-time Sprint Cup champion being eligible should he win one of the remaining two regular-season events.
"I don't know. It's a very vague thing," Hamlin said. "I know that originally, you had to have some kind of medical note or something like that, and that's kind of what happened to me with my eye when I met with Mr. Helton and the doctors at California. They said that this is kind of why they've built this program in place to just get better and come back when you can and just win a race. We did that and got ourselves in, but it's tough to say what's considered medical and not, but either way, I'm fine with Tony either in or out, it's good with me."
Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said he was pleased that NASCAR could be flexible to allow exemptions and that he hoped that course of action would be used going forward.
"Obviously, they're setting a precedent here and we'll see what other extreme circumstances develop in future years and how NASCAR looks at that," Johnson said. "I'm happy that they're sympathetic to situations and look at it and are giving a team and driver that opportunity. But again, they've set a precedent here that we're just going to have to be aware of, and hopefully they can continue to evaluate these and handle them in a similar manner."