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Tony Stewart returns to NASCAR racing after fatal accident

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart, of the number 14 car, speaks with crew members in the garage during practice for the Daytona 5
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart, of the number 14 car, speaks with crew members in the garage during practice for the Daytona 5

(Reuters) - NASCAR champion Tony Stewart will return to racing this weekend at the Atlanta Motor Speedway for the first time since he struck and killed a young racer at a dirt track in New York earlier this month, his team said on Thursday

The three-time champion has missed three races since the Aug. 9 accident in which Stewart struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. during a non-NASCAR sprint car race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York.

The results of the investigation into the crash are pending, but authorities said early in the probe that they had found no evidence of criminal behavior by Stewart.

Stewart, who was grief-stricken by the death, will also make his first appearance before the media on Friday, the Stewart-Haas racing team said in a statement.

In a separate statement, NASCAR said Stewart had "received all necessary clearances required" to return to racing this weekend.

"NASCAR has remained in constant contact with his race team, and we will stay very close to this situation as Stewart returns to competition," said NASCAR executive vice-president Steve O'Donnell.

Despite being one of auto racing's top drivers, Stewart would often compete in non-NASCAR races as he did at Canandaigua, a dimly lit track about an hour's drive west of Syracuse.

Stewart and Ward bumped cars during the race and the collision sent Ward into an outside retaining wall.

During the ensuing caution period, Ward jumped out of his car in an apparent attempt to confront the 43-year-old Stewart, who remained in the race.

When Stewart came around on the next lap, Ward, while in the middle of the track, pointed at Stewart as he came around on the next lap. As Stewart approached Ward, his car appeared to fishtail, striking Ward and throwing him some 50 feet.

Ward was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

A week after the accident, NASCAR instituted a rule that makes drivers remain in their cars until a track safety official tells them to exit. If the car is on fire or filled with smoke, drivers can leave their cars immediately.

(Reporting by Mary Milliken; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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