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Columbus driver makes NASCAR return today


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Columbus race driver Tony Stewart will return to NASCAR racing after a three-week absence.

Stewart will compete in the Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend.

Qualifying begins at 7:10 p.m. today for Sunday’s race.

 

He had missed the past three Sprint Cup races after being involved in an on-track racing incident Aug. 9 at the Canandaigua (New York) Motorsports Park in which 20-year-old sprint-car driver Kevin Ward Jr. was killed.

Stewart-Haas Racing announced Stewart’s return late Thursday afternoon.

Fans in Stewart’s hometown said they were eager to see the three-time Sprint Cup champion climb back into the No. 14 Bass Pro Shop Chevrolet SS.

“That’s his passion,” said Tom R. Wetherald, who owns Twin Cities Raceway Park in North Vernon.

“He’s a strong guy,” Wetherald said. “I don’t know if he’ll ever get his mind off the situation, but (driving) might help him get over it a little faster.”

The Columbus man said he believes Stewart will be able to pick up where he left off before the fatal accident.

Wetherald said he has texted with Stewart in the past three weeks but has not spoken directly with him.

“He doesn’t talk much,” Wetherald said. “He doesn’t talk to anybody. He’s just been grieving.”

Bartholomew County 4-H Fair Board president Larry Fisher agreed that Stewart’s return to racing should help the healing process.

“I think it’s time he got back in and started putting this thing behind him,” Fisher said. “It’s been a tragedy for him.”

Matt Arrington of Columbus, who has raced against Stewart, most recently in Three-Quarter Midgets, agreed with Fisher and Wetherald.

“My thoughts have been with him,” Arrington said. “Hopefully, it helps him in his healing process. A lot of opinions have probably changed as time has gone on, and hopefully, he can continue to heal.”

Arrington said he hopes other Stewart fans in Columbus step up to support their hometown driver.

Bob Franke will be among those who do.

“I’ve been waiting for this weekend, and I’m just glad to see he’s going to be back on the track,” said Franke, whose downtown Dairy Queen sponsored Stewart during his youth go-kart racing days.

“I’m just happy, happy, happy,” he said.

Franke, who has known the 43-year-old Stewart since the local driver was about 8, said he’s been keeping track of the local news to hear the latest on Stewart’s plans.

“I’ve been praying for him and hoping that everything would turn out well,” Franke said.

Franke said he planned to wear a Stewart T-shirt today to show his support for his friend.

Noel Franke, Bob Franke’s wife, said she’s been listening to a NASCAR station on the radio waiting to hear any news and was excited to learn of Stewart’s announcement.

“Oh, good,” she said. “It puts a little more interest in it. I mean, I like NASCAR anyways, but usually I’m always checking to see where he’s at.”

A representative with the Ontario County (New York) Sheriff’s Office said there would be no news release at this time regarding its ongoing investigation or Stewart’s announcement to race this weekend.

NASCAR released this statement Thursday: “Tony Stewart has received all necessary clearances required to return to all racing activities, and therefore is eligible to compete this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. NASCAR has remained in constant contact with his race team, and we will stay very close to this situation as Stewart returns to competition.”

Stewart will meet with the media at 1 p.m. today at the Atlanta Motor Speedway infield media center.

The news conference will be the first time Stewart has spoken in public since the fatal incident at Canandaigua.

Stewart has released only one written statement since then: “There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.”

It is not known whether Stewart will speak about the incident during the press conference.

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.

Atlanta is the second-to-last qualifying race for the Chase. The final chase qualifying race is the Sept. 6 Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

The Chase begins Sept. 14 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.

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.

Republic reporter Chris Jones and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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