Tony Stewart will not get back in a race car until he’s ready and will make that decision solely himself, Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood said during a Friday morning press conference at Michigan International Speedway.
Stewart will miss a second straight NASCAR Sprint Cup event after the tragic accident last Saturday in a sprint car race in upstate New York that resulted in the death of a fellow racer, 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr.
“This decision (not to race this weekend) was Tony’s,” Frood said. “It’s been an emotional week for him. He’s grieving.
“He made the decision he’s not ready to get in the race car. We’ll take it week by week. It’s going to be up to Tony when he’s ready to get back into the car.”
Nationwide Series driver Regan Smith was a last-minute replacement for Stewart in last Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen. This weekend’s race at Michigan will see veteran Sprint Cup driver Jeff Burton driving Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet.
There has been no further discussion of Burton or any other driver filling in for Stewart in the next race (Bristol, next Saturday night) or beyond.
“Jeff will be the driver this weekend in Michigan,” Frood said. “We have not discussed any other races. We’ll talk to Tony. When he’s ready to get in the car, he’ll be in there, and we’ll go from there.”
SHR vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli approached Burton on Wednesday to see if he’d be willing to fill in for Stewart, if necessary.
“Greg reached out to me Wednesday morning to ask if I was interested; that started the process,” Burton said. “It was like just in case Tony decides (not to race), we didn’t know.”
Burton, who will become a full-time analyst for NASCAR on NBC next season, hopes to bring a calming and stabilizing force to the team, which is also grieving over last Saturday’s tragic accident.
“My role is hopefully to provide a little stability, give that team a chance to have the most success they can have in a very difficult situation,” Burton said. “Hopefully me being here in some kind of way, I can help find a way for a healing process start.
“I don’t know how that is, but that would be my ultimate goal for everybody. Obviously, it’s an awkward situation for everybody, but there’s a lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing that work real hard and deserve 100 percent effort from me, and that’s what they’re going to get.”
On other fronts, Frood had the following to say:
* Where Stewart is currently: “Tony’s surrounded right now by his closest friends and family. We’re obviously in contact with him. His location is of a private nature right now.”
* The reaction of Stewart’s sponsors: “From a sponsor standpoint, we’ve got the greatest sponsors in the world. They’re very caring, they understand it’s an emotional time, there’s much sympathy for the family of the young man and they care for Tony. We’ve had a great deal of support from our sponsors.”
* This weekend’s task at hand: “As far as getting ready for this weekend, the task at hand for Greg and the rest of our crew is to prepare four cars for our drivers and figure out how to win this weekend at Michigan.”
* Stewart’s chances of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup will effectively end this weekend because NASCAR rules specify a driver must qualify for all pre-Chase races to be eligible for the playoffs. While Stewart qualified at Watkins Glen before the tragic accident, he will not qualify at Michigan.
“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 getting Danica (Patrick) into the Chase.
“Right now, it’s about getting Tony in a better place than he is right now. And when he’s ready to do that, he’ll get back in the car. We don’t care about the Chase (for him).”
* On media hysteria and inaccurate reporting: “We certainly understand the media has a job to do. And while there may be some irresponsible reporting, right now the focus should be on the family that’s grieving. And there’s been some focus that hasn’t been there. I’m quite certain that when we get through this that everyone will get the story from the key parties.”
* Whether this tragedy has affected the stability of SHR: “Absolutely not.”
* On how Stewart is holding up: “It’s been an emotional week for him. He’s grieving. Any time someone is lost, especially at a race track, it’s tragic. It was a tragic accident and he’s dealing with quite a bit of grief.”
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