No timetable for Tony Stewart return

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Tony Stewart is still grieving over the accident that killed Kevin Ward Jr. last Saturday and there remains no timetable for his return to the Sprint Cup Series, a Stewart-Haas Racing executive said Friday morning.

Stewart's car struck Ward -- who had exited his crashed sprint car under a caution flag and was walking down the track toward Stewart's car -- last Saturday at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York. Ward was pronounced dead of blunt force trauma shortly thereafter at an area hospital. Stewart has been questioned as part of the ongoing investigation and withdrew from last Sunday's Cup race at Watkins Glen.

On Thursday afternoon, the team announced that Jeff Burton would drive Stewart's No. 14 entry at Michigan International Speedway.

"This decision was Tony's," said Brett Frood, the team's executive vice president. "[It's been] an emotional week for him. He's grieving. Made the decision he's not ready to get in the race car and will take it week by week. It will be up to Tony when he's ready to get back in the car."

Frood wouldn't share many specifics of how Stewart is doing beyond saying he is grieving and "is surrounded right now by his closest friends and family." Frood wouldn't say whether Stewart is in his native Indiana, North Carolina or elsewhere.

Asked if Stewart-Haas had looked into whether Stewart could receive an exemption from NASCAR in order to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup if he were to return to driving and win one of the next three races before the Chase field is set, Frood said that isn't a concern. NASCAR has said it would consider a waiver if a driver missed a race due to an injury, but this is uncharted territory.

"I'll be honest, the Chase is of the lowest priority as it relates to Tony right now," Frood said. "As far as the Chase, the only care I have this weekend is to get Danica [Patrick] in the Chase.

"Right now, it's about getting Tony in a better place than he is. When he's ready to do that, he'll get back in the car. [I] don't care about the Chase."

Burton, who has made just two Cup starts this season as he transitions into a role in broadcasting, said he was contacted by the team on Wednesday to see whether he'd be available if Stewart elected to skip Michigan.

His goal this weekend is to try to bring a little stability to a team that worked with several substitute drivers last year after Stewart was injured in a sprint car accident and missed the final 15 Cup races.

"Hopefully me being here in some kind of way can help, I don't know how, but hopefully I can find a way to help a healing process start," Burton said. "I don't know how that is, but that would be my ultimate goal for everybody.

"Obviously it's an awkward situation for everybody. But there's a lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing that work really, really hard and deserve 100 percent effort from me, and that's what they're going to get."

The investigation by the Ontario (New York) County sheriff could take another two weeks as police study two videos of the incident, as well as consult with experts familiar with sprint car racing. Sheriff Philip Povero has stressed that he'd seen nothing that showed any criminal intent from Stewart, but he's added that the investigation was ongoing.

Frood says the team's sponsors have been supportive, showing sympathy for Ward's family as well as concern for Stewart. Frood says there's no fear about the stability of the team, which fields cars for Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch in addition to Stewart and Patrick.

Frood is more concerned with Ward's death, along with Stewart's well-being.

"Anytime someone is lost, especially at a racetrack, it's tragic," Frood said. "It was a tragic accident, and [Stewart's] dealing with quite a bit of grief."

Stewart's on-track competitors are also concerned.

"I haven't been able to get in contact with him. I've certainly tried," six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said Friday. "... It's such a sad, sad set of circumstances."

The Ward family attended Friday's Empire Super Sprint race in Brewerton, New York, with Ward's sister Katie telling ESPN's Kelly Naqi "we wanted to show our support for all the people showing us support." She said the family hasn't heard from Stewart, but he did send flowers with a card saying he was sorry.