Could Tony Stewart’s three-week absence from NASCAR Sprint Cup racing in light of the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy be coming to an end?
A representative for Stewart-Haas Racing told FoxSports.com Thursday morning that any update or announcement on who will drive the No. 14 SHR Chevrolet at Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend will not come until at least late this afternoon.
This is somewhat of a change in the way the announcements the last two weeks that Jeff Burton would sub for Stewart have taken place, lending credence that Stewart may very well be ending his self-imposed exile.
Of course, that’s speculation at this point.
There’s also the question about whether Stewart would climb back into his race car before the official investigation into the tragedy is completed.
The Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s Office told FoxSports.com there are no plans to release either any new information or the final results of its investigation into the incident on Thursday.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the completed report on the results of the investigation could still be released Friday, essentially paving the way for Stewart to get back in his race car, particularly if the investigation does not result in any criminal charges against him.
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Sheriff’s officials said early in the investigation of the August 9 tragedy that they expected the probe to take about two weeks, and we’re in that timeline window now.
Earlier this week, a sheriff’s office spokesman said the probe is in the final stages of “finishing up.”
Given that SHR has not named Burton or another replacement driver to once again fill in for Stewart at this point, it’s conceivable that the longer a status update is delayed by the team, the more likely it would appear Stewart might return.
It also would give the team, NASCAR and AMS officials more time to prepare for the invariable media onslaught and any resulting public statements from Stewart, who has not commented on the tragedy other than a prepared statement that was released the day after Ward was killed during a sprint car race at a dirt track in upstate New York.
In a sense, coming back at Atlanta could be best for Stewart and NASCAR in terms of timing and the invariable distraction and media attention that would result.
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If he were to wait to return until next week’s race at Richmond, his presence and the expected resulting large media turnout would significantly distract and take away from the race and the finalization of those drivers who will make the expanded 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup field.
It’s also unlikely Stewart would delay his return until for the first Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway for essentially the same reason.
Stewart has long and deep ties to Atlanta Motor Speedway, which has been one of his more successful racetracks. In 26 career Sprint Cup starts at the 1.5-mile, high-speed AMS, Stewart has three wins, 10 top-5 and 15 top-10 finishes.
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