When Tony Stewart told NASCAR officials that he was ready to return to Sprint Cup racing this weekend in Atlanta, the sanctioning body ultimately did the right thing by reinstating him.
There's no question that the last three weeks have been one of the darkest periods in NASCAR in many years, perhaps dating as far back as when Dale Earnhardt was killed in the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Even though the death of Kevin Ward Jr. came in a dirt track race and at a grassroots track, neither of which fell under NASCAR authority, the largest motorsports sanctioning body in the U.S. was drawn front-and-center into the resulting fallout.
The easy thing for NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France, president Mike Helton and others to do would have been to sideline Stewart even further.
He missed the last three races—Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol—out of his own accord and his own choice.
But when Stewart told NASCAR he was ready to return, again of his own accord, the sanctioning body didn't just take Stewart's word for it.
Rather, NASCAR's top officials made sure they brought in outside—and impartial—help to evaluate and judge whether Stewart was indeed ready.
(And being impartial was the biggest key.)
While NASCAR would not reveal what fields the outside evaluators were in, it's a logical conclusion that may have included a psychiatrist or psychologist to make sure Stewart was in the right frame of mind.
When the evaluators found that Stewart truly was ready, NASCAR approved his return in short order.
"He’s been a great asset to NASCAR," NASCAR president Mike Helton said of Stewart during a press conference at AMS Friday afternoon. "He’s been a great champion, a great participant in our sport, so it’s nice to have him back."
It may not have been the most politically correct move, particularly with the lingering grieving and mourning by Ward's family.
But without trying to sound insensitive, NASCAR owes it to its fans to put on the best show it can, with or without Stewart. Having worked through his own grief, while knowing nearly 300 employees of Stewart-Haas Racing were dependent upon their boss to get back into his race car at some point, Stewart chose to return to racing. And once he had satisfied all of NASCAR's prerequisites for his return, he climbed back into familiar territory.
While reading a self-prepared statement Friday at AMS, Stewart said:
I’ve taken the last couple of weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family and also to cope with the accident in my own way.
It’s given me the time about life and how easy it is to take it for granted. I miss my team, my teammates and I miss being back in the race car. I think being back in the car with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time.
Still, although Stewart will never be able to bring Ward back, he certainly could continue to honor his memory by dedicating his racing performance—and his ultimate finishes in the remainder of this season's races (including any potential wins)—to Ward.
While that may be little consolation to the Ward family, it would also be yet another example of how contrite and grieving Stewart has been. ESPN columnist Ed Hilton reports on Stewart's current state:
The man is still hurting -- badly. We don't know what he's been like, in seclusion, these three weeks since his sprint car struck and killed 20-year-old driver Kevin Ward Jr., who was on foot, at a dirt track in upstate New York.
But when he broke the seclusion before going out to practice on Atlanta Motor Speedway, his first time in a race car since the tragedy, it was evident that the monsoon of sadness has not ended. He is a man whose life is bent over, bowed, still overwhelmed.
The wounds from the incident are still raw. Saturday will mark just three weeks since Ward was killed in the Aug. 9 tragedy when he was struck by Stewart's sprint car after getting out of his own wrecked car.
Going back to what was said earlier about NASCAR not having jurisdiction over sprint car races on grassroots short tracks, it still had jurisdiction over Stewart nonetheless.
If NASCAR for even one moment felt Stewart would be a danger to himself and other drivers, he would not be racing this weekend at Atlanta or any other weekend still to come in 2014.
NASCAR has the power to keep Stewart out for as long as it wants. It could very easily have told him to take the rest of the season off, and there's not much Stewart would have been able to do.
Short of legal action, that is.
But NASCAR did its due diligence, adhered to its longstanding policies of dealing with incidents involving drivers by bringing in outside evaluators to make sure Stewart was of the right mindset and physical stature to drive a race car without being a threat to himself, his fellow drivers or even fans in the AMS stands.
By reinstating Stewart to active duty, so to speak, NASCAR definitely got it right in a situation that has been so wrong.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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