- Associated Press - Thursday, April 21, 2016

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tony Stewart has been cleared to return to racing and will be back in his car on Friday at Richmond International Raceway.

The three-time NASCAR champion missed the first eight races of the season with a fractured vertebra suffered in an all-terrain vehicle accident in January. The injury occurred one week before Stewart was scheduled to start his final season, as he had announced plans to retire at the end of this year.

“As soon as the doctors said they were happy with my scans, I wasn’t going to wait any longer to get back in my race car,” Stewart said, revealing his plans to return via Twitter. “I want to make the most of my last season in Sprint Cup, and I’ve been on the sidelines long enough.”

It was a rollercoaster day for Stewart, who was granted a waiver to participate in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship by NASCAR after he announced his return. Hours later, he was fined $35,000 for comments he made criticizing NASCAR over how it polices pit road.

Stewart warned drivers will be injured if NASCAR doesn’t start forcing teams to put all five lugnuts on their cars during tire changes.

“They are totally dropping the ball, and I feel like really made a very grossly bad decision,” Stewart said of NASCAR’s decision last year to stop policing the lugnuts. “We shouldn’t be playing games with safety to win races. It should be out-performing the other teams, not jeopardizing drivers’ lives by teams putting two lugnuts on to try to get two more spots off pit road.”

The fine, certain to infuriate Stewart, will soon be forgotten once he makes his long-awaited return to the No. 14 Chevrolet on Friday. He’ll race on Sunday at Richmond, then participate in a Goodyear tire test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He plans to qualify and start his car at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, but he will give up his seat to Ty Dillon after the race begins.

He plans to return to full-time racing at Kansas the following week.

Stewart thanked fans for their support and said “the best medicine will come this weekend at Richmond when I finally get to go racing.”

Stewart has attended nearly every race during his absence as a leader of Stewart-Haas Racing, the four-car team he is part owner of with Gene Haas. He’s been on the spotter stand during most races.

Richmond will be Stewart’s 591st career Sprint Cup start. He has three wins and 19 top-10 finishes at the track, where he earned first career Cup victory in 1999 by leading 333 of 400 laps.

A win there this weekend would get him in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. NASCAR granted Stewart a waiver to make him eligible to compete despite missing the early-season races.

NASCAR typically requires drivers to compete in every event, but it gave Kyle Busch a waiver last year after he missed 11 races with injuries sustained in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona. Busch still had to qualify for the Chase, which required him to win a race and crack the top 30 in points before the regular-season finale in September.

At an appearance on Wednesday, Stewart said, “If we win a race, then I think there will be a lot of attention with it. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

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