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Tony Stewart makes his NASCAR return at Atlanta Motor Speedway


Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, as the circuit hits Atlanta Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart’s return, a shift in the 2015 schedule and the two remaining opportunities to earn a “win and you’re in” Chase draw highlight the storylines of the weekend.

More questions than answers as Tony Stewart returns

Tony Stewart slid through the window opening of his No. 14 Chevrolet Friday afternoon for the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at Atlanta Motor Speedway, climbing into the one place that may, even briefly, take him away from it all. 

Behind the steering wheel, restrained in a multi-point harness and wrapped in Nomex and carbon fiber, Stewart has but one objective: find unbridled speed. 

But even that cocoon of familiarity that demands undistracted attention probably wasn't enough for Stewart to mentally separate himself from the horror of three weeks ago Saturday. It's hard to think anything will ever be enough, judging by his somber, cracking tone in a Friday press conference.

"This is something that will definitely affect my life forever," Stewart said. "This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life." 

Stewart hadn't been seen publicly since the Saturday of the Watkins Glen weekend. Just hours after qualifying 13th for the NASCAR road course race, and a little more than an hour north of Watkins Glen on the state highways of upstate New York, Stewart was involved in the horrific on-track and fatal collision with fellow sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. at the small Canandaigua Motorsports Park.

He's missed all three Sprint Cup races since.

"I've taken the last couple weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family, and also to cope with the accident in my own way," Stewart said, as every bit of that moment and the weeks of grief and devastation that have followed it showed on Stewart's stubbly face and in his mussed hair. "It's given me the time to think about life and how easy it is to take it for granted."

Stewart didn't take any questions Friday, saying he needed to "respect the ongoing investigation process" and that he wasn't "emotionally sure" if he could answer them anyway. Those lines came near the end of Stewart's statement, and when it was complete Stewart excused himself from the podium as more emotion began to stretch across his face. Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood stayed and accepted a small round of questions.

It's that investigation — one still underway for up to two more weeks by the Ontario County, N.Y. Sheriff — that Frood said prevented him from elaborating in a detailed form as many questions remained unanswered. The sheriff stated at the outset of the investigation that nothing it had reviewed in the immediate aftermath of Stewart's collision with Ward, who had exited his car to angrily gesture at Stewart, had signs of criminal intent.

But questions beyond the investigation, beyond Stewart's version of the events at Canandaigua, still remain. Frood was asked about NASCAR's statement on Thursday that indicated Stewart had received appropriate clearances to rejoin competition, and eluded vaguely to the process requiring some sort of medical clearance.

NASCAR President Mike Helton was later asked about that clearance process — one previously not detailed — and also left it vague. 

"We've cleared Tony to return as part of the normal process when a driver has been absent," Helton said.

Helton also made a noteworthy announcement that Stewart would be eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup should he win at least once in the next two races. Sunday night's race at Atlanta and next week at Richmond International Raceway are the final races of the regular season. Prior to this season, NASCAR changed its postseason rules and required drivers to attempt each race if they wanted to be eligible for the championship. Only a NASCAR waiver could substitute for a driver missing starts — and that's exactly what Stewart got.

What also wasn't clear was why Stewart decided Atlanta was the time to return, what the incident has done to relationships with Stewart's sponsors and if Stewart expects to get clearance from the sheriff investigation. Some, by their very nature, aren't appropriate to answer at this time, and some more personal questions — like what Stewart has been doing in the last three weeks — have a better time and place.

But they are still answers worth seeking as Stewart tries to push past this life-altering event.

No rule is sacred in NASCAR

Tony Stewart fan or not, NASCAR's decision Friday continued to prove a point that was crystallized a year ago when NASCAR added a 13th car to the 12-team Chase: if the sport stands to see a marketing gain from making questionable discretionary rule decisions, it will always rule in favor of the marketing gain.

There is absolutely no reason NASCAR had to make Stewart eligible for the Chase with a win via its waiver system. It's just simply not fair to any other driver who did at least attempt every race weekend this year, and it illustrates perfectly that decisions pertaining to competition are too often made by prevailing winds and not set-in-stone rules.

What if the driver involved in Stewart's situation wasn't of his same stature? Would NASCAR rule the same for the likes of Casey Mears or AJ Allmendinger? We don't know, and that's the problem.

Atlanta's Labor Day finale

They won't need the lights when the Cup Series next races at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2015, unless the bulbs get replaced with something similar to those that keep french fries warm at your favorite fast food joint. That's because the next Cup appearance at Atlanta will be six months from Sunday on March 1, 2015.

Atlanta got the shortest end of the stick in this week's announcement of next year's schedule when it was shifted to the second race of the year. In its Labor Day place is Darlington Raceway and the Southern 500's return to its rightful spot on the NASCAR calendar. Atlanta's sister track, Bristol Motor Speedway, also benefited from the shuffle by moving its spring race one month closer to summer.

It's tough to see how Atlanta, a track that used to host two Cup races each year, will now fit in the sport's long-term future. Ticket sales have been tough at the track for years, even without the prospect of cold temperatures and bad weather that a March date can bring.

Two Chase spots left

With Richmond and Atlanta remaining in the NASCAR regular season, time is running thin for many drivers still to qualify for NASCAR's postseason. It's currently Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle that are holding down the final two slots in the 16-team field, but they could be bumped by another winless driver getting a victory before the Richmond cutoff.

That leaves drivers like Stewart, Kyle Larson, Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon, Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose, Brian Vickers and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the outside looking in.

Should Atlanta produce a winner that has previously won in 2014, the top three winless drivers in the standings that are 45 points ahead of the fourth winless driver would get locked in. A new series winner with at least a 49-point gap on 31st in the standings drops the number of locked winless to two should they hold the same 45-point cushion the third.

Kyle Busch reeling but fortunate after career-worst streak

Crew chief Dave Rogers had to publicly mend fences last week after Kyle Busch, so frustrated with his crashed car at Bristol, disregarded Rogers' request that Busch drive the car to the hauler and instead left it sitting on pit road. Rogers later claimed all was well in the group after he and Busch talked about the incident in the hauler before Busch left the track.

That DNF was Busch's second in four races and continued his descent from sixth in points to 17th. Only an early season win at Fontana has left the No. 18 eligible for the Chase.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.