By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tony Stewart has been cleared to return to racing and will be back in his car Friday at Richmond International Raceway.
The three-time NASCAR champion missed the first eight races of the season with a fractured vertebra suffered in a January all-terrain vehicle accident. The injury occurred one week before Stewart was scheduled to start his final season in NASCAR. He’s retiring at the end of this year.
“As soon as the doctors said they were happy with my scans, I wasn’t going to wait any longer to get back in my race car,” Stewart said, announcing his return Thursday on Twitter. “I want to make the most of my last season in Sprint Cup, and I’ve been on the sidelines long enough.”
It was a rollercoaster day for Stewart, who was granted a waiver to participate in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship by NASCAR after he announced his return. Hours later, he was fined $35,000 for comments he made criticizing NASCAR over how it polices pit road.
Stewart warned drivers will be injured if NASCAR doesn’t start forcing teams to put all five lug nuts on their cars during tire changes.
“They are totally dropping the ball, and I feel like (they) really made a very grossly bad decision,” Stewart said of NASCAR’s decision last year to stop policing the lug nuts. “We shouldn’t be playing games with safety to win races. It should be out-performing the other teams, not jeopardizing drivers’ lives by teams putting two lug nuts on to try to get two more spots off pit road.”
The fine, certain to infuriate Stewart, will soon be forgotten once he makes his long-awaited return to the No. 14 Chevrolet on Friday. He’ll race Sunday at Richmond, then participate in a Goodyear tire test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He plans to qualify and start his car at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, but he will give his seat up after the race begins to Ty Dillon.
Stewart says the style of racing at Talladega could lead to an accident that could hurt his comeback.
“We’re taking a strategic approach to my return,” Stewart said. “Richmond is a track where I feel very comfortable and because it’s a short track, the speeds are substantially less. The Goodyear test in Indy is sort of a controlled environment, allowing me to get more acclimated with my car at higher speeds. We’ll start the Talladega race to get the points, but understanding the style of racing and the higher potential of getting involved in an incident, we thought it was best to minimize the amount of time I’m in the car.”
He plans to return to full-time racing at Kansas the following week.
Stewart thanked fans for their support and said “the best medicine will come this weekend at Richmond when I finally get to go racing.”
Stewart has attended nearly every race during his absence as a leader of Stewart-Haas Racing, the four-car team he is part owner of with Gene Haas. He’s been on the spotter stand during most races.
Richmond will be Stewart’s 591st career Sprint Cup start. He has three wins and 19 top-10s at the Virginia track, where he earned first career Cup victory in 1999 by leading 333 of 400 laps. A win there this weekend would get him in the Chase since NASCAR granted Stewart a waiver to make him eligible despite missing the early-season races.
“NASCAR received the appropriate medical clearance documentation allowing Tony Stewart to resume normal racing activities,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “We also have granted the request from Stewart-Haas Racing for a waiver for Tony to be eligible to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. As he begins his final season, we wish Tony the best of luck.”
NASCAR typically requires drivers to compete in every event, but it gave Kyle Busch a waiver last year after he missed 11 races with injuries suffered in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona. Busch still had to qualify for the Chase, which required him to win a race and crack the top 30 in points before the regular-season finale in September.