Tony Stewart to return to Sprint Cup Series at Atlanta Motor Speedway

Tune-in alert: FOX Sports 1 is interrtupting regularly scheduled programming to bring viewers live coverage of the Mike Helton news conference from Atlanta Motor Speedway today at 2 p.m. ET, as it did for the earlier Tony Stewart news conference at AMS.

After a three-week absence, Tony Stewart will be back behind the wheel of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet SS this weekend and is scheduled to talk about it with the media today from Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Stewart, a three-time NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES champion, is returning to the track for the first time since being involved in an on-track sprint car incident Aug. 9 that resulted in the death of fellow racer Kevin Ward Jr. at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park. Stewart has not competed in the last three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events.

Stewart, a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, will compete in Sunday night’s Oral-B USA 500 at AMS, his first race of any kind since being involved in the incident at an Aug. 9 sprint car race in Upstate New York. Stewart-Haas Racing made the announcement on Thursday.

Ward Jr., 20, died after he was hit by Stewart’s car while walking on the track during the race at the track in Canandaigua, N.Y. Ward was dueling with Stewart when he hit the wall, then got out of his car and walked toward Stewart’s car. It appeared that Ward was struck by the right-rear tire of Stewart’s car before being thrown into the air.

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The Ontario County (N.Y.) coroner ruled that Ward died of blunt-force trauma, and a police investigation has been ongoing for the past three weeks.

A representative from the Ontario County Sheriff’s Office told Thursday morning that no updates on the Ward investigation would be issued Thursday.

Stewart was scheduled to compete in a Sprint Cup race Aug. 10 at Watkins Glen, but he pulled out of that event, as well as the next two races at Michigan International Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway. He comes into Sunday night’s race at Atlanta 26th in points, with a best finish this season of fourth, which he earned in the spring Bristol race.

Atlanta Motor Speedway is one of Stewart’s best tracks. In 25 starts at the 1.54-mile oval, Stewart has three victories, 10 top-fives and 15 top-10s. Stewart’s average finish here of 11.654 is best in the Sprint Cup Series.

Even before the fatal accident, this has been a challenging season for Stewart, the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing and driver of the No. 14 SHR Chevrolet.

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Stewart suffered a double-compound fracture of his right leg in a sprint car crash in Iowa in August 2013. The injury kept him out of a race car until Daytona Speedweeks in February.

Although Stewart has been able to race since then, he has struggled to finish well consistently, and on several occasions publicly said his injured leg was not fully healed. He was 19th in points prior to Watkins Glen, the first race he missed, and for the year, Stewart has just two top-five and six top-10 finishes in 21 Sprint Cup points races.

Stewart has not spoken publicly since the accident, but he and SHR executive vice president Brett Frood are expected to meet with the media at 1 p.m. ET Friday at the Atlanta track.

NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell issued a statement saying, "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."

NASCAR president Mike Helton will have a media session Friday at 2 p.m. to discuss the Stewart situation.

Stewart, who was described by police as "visibly shaken" the night of Ward’s death, has been in seclusion ever since. Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood has said the emphasis was on giving Stewart time needed to get him "in a better place than he is."

Stewart’s only comment since the crash was a statement the day after the crash in which he said "there aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr."

Stewart will return with a decision pending on whether he will be charged in Ward’s death. Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero has said investigators did not have any evidence to support criminal intent by Stewart. Povero said Thursday the investigation is still ongoing.

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. There was no immediate word if NASCAR would grant that waiver.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

VIDEO: Potential legal ramifications of Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward Jr. incident