'Grieving' Stewart won't return to racing until ready

Brooklyn, MI ( - Representatives from Stewart-Haas Racing said during a press conference on Friday at Michigan International Speedway that Tony Stewart is "grieving" over the death of Kevin Ward Jr. and its undetermined when Stewart will be back in a race car.

"Tony is surrounded right now by his closest friends and family," said Brett Frood, executive vice president of Stewart-Haas Racing. "His location is of a private nature right now."

Last Saturday, Stewart struck and killed Ward during a sprint car race at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park. The incident occurred during a caution when Ward climbed out of his car and then walked down the dirt track, pointing his finger in the direction of Stewart and apparently yelling at him to express his displeasure. The right rear of Stewart's car hit Ward and dragged him briefly across the track.

The caution came when Stewart and Ward made contact while battling for position, with Ward spinning out and hitting the wall.

As of now, there are no criminal charges pending against Stewart. However, the investigation regarding Ward's death is ongoing. Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff Philip Povero said on Tuesday that he expects the investigation to continue for at least two more weeks. Povero mentioned that investigators continue to seek witnesses, gather evidence and reconstruct the crash. Ward died from massive blunt trauma.

Stewart, a three-time champion in NASCAR's premier series, will not compete in Sunday's 400-mile Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan. Jeff Burton will substitute for him in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet. It's not known yet when Stewart will return to racing.

"This decision was Tony's," Frood said. "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."

Burton competed in the Cup Series full time from 1994-2003. He has driven the No. 66 Toyota for Jay Robinson Racing/Michael Waltrip Racing in two races this season (Las Vegas and New Hampshire). Next year, Burton will serve as an analyst for NBC Sports' coverage of NASCAR.

"My role here is to hopefully provide a little stability, give that team a chance to have the most success they can have in a very difficult situation," Burton said. "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 that Greg Zipadelli, who is the vice president of competition for Stewart-Haas Racing, approached him on Wednesday to find out if he would be interested in driving Stewart's car at Michigan.

Last Sunday, Stewart decided not to compete in the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International. Regan Smith, a Nationwide Series regular, filled in for him. Smith finished 37th after he was involved in a late-race accident with Jimmie Johnson.

Stewart is currently 21st in the Sprint Cup point standings. He has yet to win a race this season. With four races to go before the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins, Stewart is 97 points behind Clint Bowyer, who holds the 16th and final provisional spot in the playoffs.

"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 [Stewart-Haas Racing driver] 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. Don't care about the Chase."

SHR drivers Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch have wins this season.

After Michigan, the series moves on to Bristol (Aug. 23) and then Atlanta (Aug. 31) before the Chase-cutoff race at Richmond (Sept. 6).

Stewart missed the Chase last year when he was sidelined for the final 15 races due to a leg injury. He broke his right tibia and fibula during an accident in a sprint car race on Aug. 5, 2013 in Iowa.