Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart talks to crew members during practice for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Aug. 30 in Hampton, Ga.

Image: David Tulis/Associated Press
By Colin Daileda2014-09-01 01:36:52 UTC

Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart returned to racing on Sunday in Atlanta following a three-week absence after his car hit and killed fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr. at a dirt race track in New York on Aug. 9.

“I’ve taken the last couple weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family, and also to cope with the accident in my own way,” Stewart said in a statement. “It’s given me the time to think about life and how easy it is to take it for granted.”

Stewart has missed or canceled races in New York, Indiana, Michigan and Tennessee since the incident, two of which were part of the Sprint Cup. Missing any regular season Sprint Cup race normally disqualifies a driver from competing in The Chase — NASCAR’s version of the post-season — but NASCAR has granted Stewart an exemption.

He now has to win in Atlanta, or on Sept. 6 in Richmond, Va., in order to have a shot at the title. Stewart finished 15th and 18th overall in two time trial sessions at the Atlanta Motor Speedway leading up to Sunday’s race.

“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 Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell said in a statement on the organization’s website.

Stewart’s 2014 season was supposed to be a return to form after he broke his leg during a dirt track race last year, but it was all thrown off course after he banged into Ward’s car on Aug. 9, sending Ward’s vehicle into the wall.

The 20-year-old Ward got out of the car and stomped onto the track, apparently trying to confront Stewart. One car swerved out of Ward’s way before Stewart’s right rear tire smacked into the young driver, hurling him into the air. As a result, Ward later died due to blunt force trauma.

“This has been one of the toughest tragedies I’ve ever had to deal with both professionally and personally,” Stewart said in the statement. “This is something that will definitely affect my life forever.”

Authorities in Canandaigua, New York are still investigating the incident. No one has filed a criminal case against Stewart, though officials haven’t ruled out the possibility.

NASCAR responded to the tragedy by instituting a new rule preventing drivers from getting out of crashed cars, as long as the car isn’t on fire.

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