How NASCAR determined Tony Stewart was ready to race again

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HAMPTON, Ga. — Tony Stewart didn’t just wake up Friday morning and decide he was going to return to NASCAR racing.

Rather, NASCAR officials required that Stewart followed procedures and protocols that included him being evaluated by outside professionals.

NASCAR president Mike Helton said the sanctioning body kept in “constant contact” with Stewart-Haas Racing officials during Stewart’s nearly three-week absence and self-imposed seclusion since the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy.

Once NASCAR learned Stewart felt he was ready to go back to racing, he had to be evaluated by several professionals before the sanctioning body would clear him to return to the racetrack.

“The reinstatement process doesn’t begin until the competitor is ready to come back,” Helton said. “That’s what we’ve been through this week.”

MORE: Helton: Tony Stewart still eligible for Chase, but must win to get in

He further explained how the process works:

“As typical, our process calls for us to rely on third party experts to assure us that a NASCAR driver or a NASCAR member is ready to return,” Helton said. “All those forms of processes were met and we cleared him based on those third party inputs from experts.

“… When it comes to the assurances that a driver or a NASCAR member is ready to return, we’re going to rely on outside experts.”

When pressed on whether Stewart had to undergo psychological or psychiatric examinations, Helton refused to get into specifics.

“We received the ones that we felt were relevant under the circumstances,” he said.

NASCAR had the option to keep Stewart sidelined until the ongoing police investigation into the tragic accident that claimed the life of young Kevin Ward Jr., but decided to allow Stewart back on the racetrack.

“We made our decisions based on the circumstances we’ve got currently,” Helton said. “And I think most everyone in this room understands at NASCAR, our effort, our scope of responsibility and authority is limited to the NASCAR community.

“We take the current circumstances that we are dealt with and make what we hope to be the best absolute conclusion. That’s what we’re talking about today, is the current set of circumstances and our reaction to them.”

MORE: Full transcript of Mike Helton press conference at Atlanta

Once NASCAR was satisfied that Stewart met its protocol to return to the track, he was cleared to race at Atlanta after missing the previous three events at Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol.

“I think particularly those of us that follow this sport every weekend know that driver’s healing processes are unique,” Helton said. “But they are racecar drivers, and a lot of times getting back in a racecar is something they shoot to do as quickly as they can.

“So once Tony decided to come back, we then had to go through the policies and the procedures and the steps that we’ve historically built over time to make the absolute most correct decision we could make under the circumstances we were handed.”

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Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.