Tony Stewart cleared to make NASCAR return this weekend

NASCAR star Tony Stewart has been cleared by doctors to return to competition beginning this weekend at Richmond, Stewart said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Tony Stewart cleared to make NASCAR return this weekend
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing
Brian Vickers, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Tony Stewart, Brian Vickers, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Ty Dillon, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing announces his retirement
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet

The 44-year-old three-time Sprint Cup Series champion, who announced last season that 2016 would be his last as a fulltime competitor, suffered a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra on Jan. 31 while driving a sand rail in the Glamis Sand Dunes of the California desert.

“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 year that he would retire after 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.”

Following Richmond, Stewart will participate in a Goodyear tire test April 26-27 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He will then practice and qualify his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup Series’ next event at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. However, Stewart will only start the race before yielding the car to Ty Dillon, who split substitute driving duties this year with Brian Vickers.

“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.

“I appreciate everyone’s patience and all the support they’ve given me the last couple of months, but the best medicine will come this weekend at Richmond when I finally get to go racing.”

Just last month Stewart had made enough progress in his back’s healing that he was allowed to begin physical rehabilitation to expedite the healing process.

In the meantime, Stewart has attended nearly every Cup series weekend, spending him assisting whoever has been substituting for him in his No. 14 Chevrolet as well as the other Stewart-Haas Racing teams.

Since the season began, drivers Dillon and Brian Vickers have been taking turns in Stewart’s car.

In a visit in March to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Stewart vowed that the 2016 NASCAR season will remain his last, regardless of when he is able to return to competition.

“These are the cards we’ve been dealt and we’ll play the rest of the year out as soon as they tell me I can get back in the car,” he said then. “I’ll be wide-open and 100 percent.

“I’m not going to leave anything on the table each race. I’ll get whatever I can get and at the end of the year, whatever we got, we got.”

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