Team: Decision of when to race again is Stewart's alone
August 15, 2014, Staff report, NASCAR.com
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Stewart-Haas Racing officials said Friday morning that there is no timetable for Tony Stewart's return to NASCAR racing and that the decision will be the driver's call to make.
Stewart will sit out from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for the second straight week, a decision he made Thursday as he continues to grieve over the death of sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. in an on-track incident last weekend. Veteran driver Jeff Burton joined the team's Friday morning briefing and will fill in this weekend in the No. 14 Chevrolet at Michigan International Speedway, but the team's plans beyond this weekend remained in limbo.
"This decision was Tony's," said Brett Frood, Stewart-Haas Racing's executive vice president. "An emotional week for him. He's grieving; made the decision he's not ready to get in the race car and will take it week by week. It will be up to Tony when he's ready to get back in the car."
Stewart-Haas officials said legal reasons precluded them from answering all questions in detail as Ontario County (N.Y.) authorities continued to investigate the fatal crash at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, a half-mile dirt track on the Ontario County Fairgrounds. The contact between Stewart's sprint car and Ward, on foot, preceded NASCAR officials making formal adjustments to the rule book Friday morning, prohibiting drivers from leaving their cars as a safety measure.
Frood said the team has remained in touch with Stewart as he mourns with his inner circle of family and close friends. He also said that the team has kept in close contact with its sponsors and has welcomed their backing under difficult circumstances.
"They're very caring. They understand it's an emotional time," Frood said. "There's much sympathy for the family of the young man, and the care for Tony. We've had a great deal of support from our partners. As far as getting ready for this weekend, the task at hand ... is to prepare four cars for our drivers and figure out how to win this weekend at Michigan."
As the rest of the Sprint Cup field also prepares for Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN), it'll do so without Stewart, one of the sport's biggest personalities and a three-time champion of its top division. But the drivers clearly have thoughts of sympathy and comfort for loved ones of Ward, who was buried Thursday in his hometown of Port Leyden, New York.
Six-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson said he had reached out but not heard back from Stewart in the days since the incident.
"Just feel for him, for Gene Haas, the team, the uncertainty that lies there, certainly from the Tony standpoint, and then the Ward family -- as much as I'm concerned for Tony and his well-being, the pain and sorrow that the Ward family and friends are going through, it's such a sad, sad set of circumstances and certainly a hot button for different sides and different reasons and different opinions."
Drivers were careful not to take sides in the accident, saying that once Stewart's silence is broken, more answers will come to light. Kyle Larson, whose upbringing in auto racing includes a rich sprint car background, said he had never raced at Canandaigua and could not offer insight about the track's lighting or its overall characteristics.
"It's just really tough to have an opinion on it when you weren't part of it," Larson said. "Really there is only one guy that knows what happened ... or two, and one is not here any more. It's kind of hard for any of us to have an opinion on it when we don't 100 percent know what was going on."
Johnson agreed. "I think once Tony is able to talk or does talk, I think a lot of us, many people out there will feel better hearing his side of the situation," he said. "I know what I believe happened; I think it was completely an accident. In time, we'll see when Tony is available to talk and where things go from there."
Stewart's current hiatus marks the second straight season in which a sprint car incident has shrouded his racing career with uncertainty. In 2013, he missed the rest of the season after a severe leg injury in an early August sprint car crash; he returned this year for season-opening activity at Daytona International Speedway, but still walks with a limp as a result of the wreck.
The current absence also muddles Stewart's eligibility for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs. Under this year's new postseason eligibility rules, a driver must attempt to qualify for all 26 regular-season races and rank in the top 30 in Sprint Cup standings. Stewart-Haas driver Kevin Harvick has clinched a Chase berth by virtue of his wins in the regular season; Kurt Busch can clinch with a win this weekend; but Stewart and teammate Danica Patrick remain winless in 2014.
According to NASCAR, the qualifying rule can be waived as long as a driver remains in the top 30. Though Stewart ranks 21st with a mathematical chance of securing a Chase berth, Frood said his postseason hopes take a back seat to last weekend's tragedy and its aftermath.
"I'll be honest, the Chase is of the lowest priority as it relates to Tony right now," Frood said. "As far as the Chase, the only care I have this weekend is to get Danica in the Chase. Right now it's about getting Tony in a better place than he is. When he's ready to do that, he'll get back in the car. Don't care about the Chase."