The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion announced today that he will return to racing this weekend at Richmond International Raceway, less than three months after suffering a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra in an ATV accident in the California desert on Jan. 31.
Stewart has missed the first eight races of the 2016 season, after undergoing reconstructive surgery that included the addition of metal robs and screws, as well as a wire mesh “cage” around the affected vertebrae.
“As soon as the doctors said they were happy with my scans, I wasn’t going to wait any longer to get back in my racecar,” said Stewart, who announced last September that he will retire following the 2016 season. “I want to make the most of my last season in Sprint Cup, and I’ve been on the sidelines long enough.”
Shortly after Stewart’s announcement, NASCAR released a statement granting a waiver for qualification into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
“NASCAR received the appropriate medical clearance documentation allowing Tony Stewart to resume normal racing activities,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “We also have granted the request from Stewart-Haas Racing for a waiver for Tony to be eligible to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. As he begins his final season, we wish Tony the best of luck.”
To earn a Chase spot, Stewart will need to win at least one race – something he hasn’t done since June of 2013 – as well as finish the 26-race regular season among the top 30 in points. Matt DiBenedetto currently sits 30th in the driver standings, with 112 points.
Following Richmond, Stewart will participate in a Goodyear tire test April 26-27 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He will then practice, qualify for and start the event at Talladega Superspeedway, before giving way to relief driver Ty Dillon. As the driver of record, Stewart will receive championship points for that event.
Dillon (three races) and Brian Vickers (five) have substituted for Stewart in the No. 14 Chevrolet this season, combining for an average finish of 22.0 with one Top-10. The No. 14 currently sits 23rd in owner points.
“We’re taking a strategic approach to my return,” Stewart said. “Richmond is a track where I feel very comfortable and because it’s a short track, the speeds are substantially less. The Goodyear test in Indy is sort of a controlled environment, allowing me to get more acclimated with my car at higher speeds. We’ll start the Talladega race to get the points, but understanding the style of racing and the higher potential of getting involved in an incident, we thought it was best to minimize the amount of time I’m in the car. I’ll return fulltime at Kansas and enjoy every moment I can in my final year of Sprint Cup.”
Stewart has three wins and 19 top 10s in 33 starts at Richmond, site of Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400.