Hampton, GA (SportsNetwork.com) - Despite his absence from the last three races, NASCAR will allow Tony Stewart to remain eligible for a spot in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship due to "a very unique set of circumstances."
Stewart is currently 26th in the Sprint Cup Series standings and has yet to win a race this season. But if Stewart wins either Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway or next week's Chase-cutoff event at Richmond International Raceway then he would clinch a position in the 16-driver Chase field.
When announcing the new playoff format for its premier series in January, NASCAR noted that a driver eligible for the Chase must be in the top-30 in points following the first 26 races (regular season) and have attempted to qualify for all of those events. However, in rare instances, NASCAR can waive the requirement of attempting to qualify for all regular-season races.
NASCAR has decided to waive the requirement for Stewart based on the circumstances for him missing Watkins Glen (Aug. 10), Michigan (Aug. 17) and Bristol (last Saturday).
"This has been a very unique set of circumstances to Tony and to our sport," NASCAR president Mike Helton said during a press conference on Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "As a league and our responsibility to try to make decisions that are correct and right, sometimes we evaluate circumstances that are given to us and then make those decisions as correctly as we can.
"After evaluating the circumstances around this occurrence, we've come to the conclusion that Tony would be eligible to participate in the Chase if he were to earn a spot in it."
Stewart, a three-time Cup Series champion, had been in seclusion following his involvement in a fatal accident on Aug. 9 at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park. He struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint car race. As of now, there are no criminal charges pending against Stewart, but the investigation into Ward's death is still ongoing.
On Thursday, Stewart-Haas Racing announced that Stewart would return to his driving duties of the No. 14 Chevrolet this weekend at Atlanta. On that same day, NASCAR issued a statement in regards to Stewart's return, saying he "has received all necessary clearances required to return to all racing activities, and therefore is eligible to compete."
Helton gave some details on the process that NASCAR used to clear Stewart for his return to racing.
"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, and all those forms of processes were met, and we cleared him, based on those inputs from third-party experts," Helton said.
Helton did not reveal any names or their fields of expertise.
Roughly an hour before Helton met with the media, Stewart spoke publicly for the first time since Ward's death. Stewart expressed his sorrow while reading from his prepared statement.
Stewart will not qualify for the Chase if he does not win at either Atlanta or Richmond. Points-wise, he is too far behind 16th-place Greg Biffle on the provisional Chase grid. Twelve drivers have already clinched a spot in the playoffs based on their race wins this season. At least two positions will go to drivers who are without a victory.
Last year, Stewart missed the Chase after he broke his right tibia and fibula during an accident in a sprint car race in Iowa. He underwent three surgeries to repair his injured leg and was sidelined for the final 15 Sprint Cup races of the season.