BROOKLYN, Mich. — Tony Stewart is skipping a second straight Sprint Cup race, and it is not clear when the NASCAR star might return after he struck and killed a driver at a dirt-track race in New York last weekend.
“This decision was Tony’s,” said Brett Frood, executive vice president of Stewart-Haas Racing. “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.”
Jeff Burton will drive the No. 14 car in Stewart’s place in Sunday’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway. Frood said they haven’t discussed any other races.
Last Saturday, during a sprint car race in Canandaigua, New York, Stewart appeared to clip Kevin Ward Jr.’s car, sending it spinning, Ward left the car during the caution period, walked down the track and was hit by Stewart’s car. His funeral was Thursday.
Stewart could face criminal charges. Frood said Friday that Stewart was surrounded by his closest friends and family, although he didn’t say where.
Defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said he’s tried to contact Stewart but hasn’t heard back.
“I’d imagine there’s still a lot going on, and I’d assume he’s being advised to keep comments to a minimum right now with all the legal things that are out there pending,” Johnson said. “As much as I’m concerned for Tony and his well-being, the pain and sorrow that the Ward family and friends are going through — it’s such a sad, sad set of circumstances.”
Burton, who made his Cup debut in 1993, has been making the transition to the broadcast booth, but he’s ready to help SHR in Stewart’s absence, at least for this race.
“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. I don’t know how that is, but that would be my ultimate goal for everybody.”
Stewart is winless and 21st in the Cup standings this season. It’s not clear what sitting out does for Stewart’s chances to reach the Chase for the Sprint Cup. NASCAR rules say a driver must either qualify the car or race the car each weekend. NASCAR does have the power to grant a waiver.
“The Chase is of the lowest priority as it relates to Tony right now,” Frood said. “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.”
GORDON SETS QUALIFYING MARK AT MICHIGAN: In Brooklyn, Mich., the numbers keep climbing — and this time the rise was anything but gradual.
Jeff Gordon set the track qualifying record at Michigan International Speedway on Friday with a speed of 206.558 mph, winning his 76th career pole in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series. Gordon broke the previous mark of 204.557 by a remarkable margin — and that record was set just two months ago by Kevin Harvick.
Speeds at MIS have been climbing ever since the two-mile oval was repaved before the 2012 season. When Marcos Ambrose reached 203.241 that year, it was the first time anyone won a pole at over 200 mph since Bill Elliott did it in 1987, before horsepower-sapping restrictor plates were introduced at Talladega and Daytona.
Joey Logano broke Ambrose’s record last August, only for Harvick and Gordon to keep pushing it higher.
“I don’t know where to start,” Gordon said. “You can point at the repaving of the racetrack. This track is smooth — has a tremendous amount of surface area where the tire can get a lot of grip to it. The next thing is the cars.”
Gordon’s run Friday was the seventh-fastest pole-winning speed in the history of NASCAR’s top series.
NASCAR overhauled its qualifying process before this season, switching to a knockout format similar to Formula One and IndyCar. NASCAR now uses three rounds of qualifying at tracks 1 1/4 miles in length or larger. The entire field has 25 minutes to post their fastest single lap and the top 24 advance to the second round.
The second segment lasts 10 minutes, and the fastest 12 advance to a final, 5-minute round.
There have been 17 qualifying records set this season, so this is not simply an MIS phenomenon.
“It has nothing to do with the racetrack picking up speed,” said Logano, who qualified second behind Gordon. “It has (to do with) what we’ve been doing to the race cars to go faster. ... I believe it’s cooler out, too. So I think between those two things, that’s why we went faster again, but the racetrack itself isn’t picking up speed. The racetrack, if anything, is maintaining to getting slower. But it’s widening out, so it’s becoming a better race.”
It was Gordon’s second pole of the season. He also qualified first last week at Watkins Glen but finished 34th, giving up the series points lead to Dale Earnhardt Jr.