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After the death of Kevin Ward, will Tony Stewart ever race again?

Jeff Burton recently replaced Stewart at Bristol Motor Speedway

Jeff Burton joins the NASCAR America crew to discuss what it was like to take over for Tony Stewart in the last two races. Burton says he hasn't talked to Stewart and isn't sure when he'll be back.

Amidst news that Tony Stewart will not race this weekend at Bristol, as well as a grassroots campaign is building support for Stewart, including plans to stand up and cheer for him during Lap 14 (Stewart’s race car number) of Saturday night’s race at Bristol, one question still remains:

When or will Stewart ever race again?

This is strictly my opinion, but it would appear likely at the very least that Stewart will not return behind the wheel of his No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet until the current investigation by Ontario County (NY) sheriff’s deputies into the tragic sprint car accident that killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. is completed.

Sheriff Philip C. Povero said early last week that the investigation would likely take up to two weeks.

If that timing is correct, we should have some kind of conclusion and report on the tragic wreck by the early to middle part of next week.

If Stewart is found not to be culpable in the accident, it would seem one of the most logical venues for his return to racing would be the Oral-B USA 500 on Aug. 31 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Again, this is strictly speculation and my opinion.

One of Stewart’s biggest sponsors, not to mention one of his closest friends, Bass Pro Shops and company founder and president Johnny Morris, have a long history with Atlanta Motor Speedway. The Atlanta market is also very significant in Morris’ corporate structure.

If and when Stewart is going to come back to Sprint Cup racing, he’d do well to surround himself with as many friends and sponsors as he can, making Atlanta the perfect venue to do so.

Stewart and Morris have more than just a driver-sponsor relationship. They’re very close friends, fishing buddies and more. If anyone will have Stewart’s back from a sponsor’s and friend’s standpoint, Morris would be it.

What’s more, Stewart has a strong performance record at AMS: In 26 Sprint Cup starts, he has three wins, 10 top-10 and 15 top-10 finishes. He’s said many times that it’s one of his favorite tracks on the circuit.

There’s another bit of logic for Stewart to return to racing at Atlanta: if he were to come back for the final Chase qualifying race at Richmond, his presence would likely cause a significant distraction from the task at hand of naming 16 drivers to make up the expanded Chase field.

Likewise and ditto for Stewart returning to the Cup series for the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway: It would distract and detract from the beginning of NASCAR’s yearly marquee event.

That’s why Atlanta makes the most sense.

Now, granted, Stewart may very well just take the rest of the season off. If that were to be the case, it’s unlikely that any of his supporters would blame him. I know I wouldn’t.

But at the same time, what’s one of the first things doctors, psychologists and other experts advise those who’ve been involved in serious car wrecks (that oftentimes include fatalities)?

“Get back in the car and start driving again.”

That’s the same logic for Stewart. Sure, he’s obviously grieving greatly. He has not made a public statement since the morning of the Watkins Glen race, not more than 12 hours or so after the tragic incident that killed Ward.

Since then, there’s been absolutely nothing from Stewart in terms of what he’s saying, thinking or feeling. We’re left to our own devices to assume what he’s going through, how he’s mourning Ward and how he’s dealing with the resulting grief and fallout from arguably the biggest tragedy Stewart has ever known.

He’s likely keeping quiet for two reasons. First, he’s allowing the Ward family to grieve and mourn their son and brother. Even though Ward was buried last week, the wounds are still running deep – and likely will for a long, long time.

Second, it would not be a surprise that Stewart’s lawyers have advised him not to make any public statements until the crash investigation is over.

That’s a logical possibility, given that whatever Stewart might have to say could potentially be used against him in either a criminal case (if he’s charged by authorities) or civil suit.

It’s not surprising that Stewart missed the Sprint Cup races at both Watkins Glen and Michigan this past Sunday. And as much as he loves to race there, it’s equally not going to be a surprise that Stewart will once again not race at Bristol this Saturday night (just like at Michigan, Jeff Burton will replace Stewart in the No. 14 at Bristol).

But come Atlanta, if there’s any place where he’ll likely feel the most love and support of any remaining track on the circuit this season, that super-fast 1.5-mile oval will likely be the most welcoming locale for Stewart.

Some fans fear that perhaps we’ve seen the last of Stewart behind the wheel, that he’ll retire as an active driver across all racing platforms.

I disagree, nor do I see that happening.

Rather, Stewart would be well-served if he did get back in a race car again. He owes it to his fans, he owes it to his sponsors, he owes it to his company and its hundreds of employees. He also owes it to himself.

And in a way, he owes it to the memory of Kevin Ward Jr.

Whether he was killed by his own mistake or not, Ward was a racer first and foremost. If the shoe was on the other foot, I’m sure Stewart would tell Ward it was nothing more than a tragic accident and that he owed it to himself to keep racing.

It’s the same for Stewart.

That’s why Atlanta makes the most sense for his return. It’s far enough away from the original incident, it comes after the investigation result will likely be made public and a growing number of fans want to see Stewart race again.

Of course, if the investigation does find negligence or culpability on Stewart’s part, then it’s likely we’ve seen him race for the final time of his career.

- Jerry Bronkowski, NBC Sports

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