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Tony Stewart to make race return Sunday at Atlanta

After missing the last three NASCAR Sprint Cup races following the tragic accident that claimed the life of 20-year-old sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. at an upstate New York dirt track, NASCAR star Tony Stewart will return to NASCAR Sprint Cup racing this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Stewart-Haas Racing officials announced that development at 4:30 pm ET in a distributed media release. There were no comments from Stewart in the media release.

NASCAR officials subsequently confirmed the news.

“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,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “NASCAR has remained in constant contact with his race team, and we will stay very close to this situation as Stewart returns to competition.”

Stewart will hold a press conference at 1 pm ET at the AMS infield media center where he is expected to discuss his return and all of the things he has gone through since Ward was killed in an August 9 dirt track race at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park.

Stewart will be joined in the press conference by SHR executive vice president Brett Frood.

MORECould Tony Stewart return to race this weekend at Atlanta?

NASCAR president Mike Helton will also hold a press conference one hour after Stewart’s at 2 pm ET, also in the AMS Media Center. The sanctioning body said in a media release Thursday afternoon that it would have no further comment until Helton’s media session.

The official report on the Ward tragedy has yet to be released by Ontario County (N.Y.) sheriff’s investigators, although that is expected to occur soon, perhaps as early as Friday.

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.

While NASCAR rules for the expanded Chase for the Sprint Cup require drivers to have qualified for all 26 pre-Chase races and be in the top-30 in points, NASCAR.com reported Thursday afternoon that Stewart, who is 26th in points, could potentially still make the upcoming Chase. About the only way he could do so, though, would be to win at Atlanta or the final pre-Chase race next Saturday at Richmond.

He would also have to petition for and receive a waiver from NASCAR officials, provided he remains in the top 30 in points.

Sunday’s Sprint Cup race will be the first for Stewart since Aug. 3 at Pocono Raceway.

- Jerry Bonkowski, NBC Sports

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