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NASCAR: Joe Gibbs hopeful for eventual return of Tony Stewart

Aug 19, 2014, 3:12 PM EDT

Bojangles' Southern 500 Getty Images

Since his involvement in a fatal sprint car incident on Aug. 9, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart has been largely in seclusion.

He has not competed in the last two Sprint Cup events at Watkins Glen (replaced by Regan Smith) and Michigan (replaced by Jeff Burton), and several of his peers – including Jeff Gordon and Stewart Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick – have said that they haven’t been able to speak with him.

But team owner Joe Gibbs, whose No. 20 squad won the 2002 and 2005 Sprint Cup championships with Stewart behind the wheel, believes that “Smoke” will eventually come back.

“We all love Tony, we love what he did for us here,” Gibbs has said to USA Today’s Jeff Gluck. “We know he’s a racer’s racer and he’s big for our sport. I would love to have a chance to speak with him at some point and encourage him.”

Gibbs hailed his former driver as a man of “great courage,” but also acknowledged the Aug. 9 tragedy as “a horrible thing to have happen” for all involved – including Stewart and the family of Kevin Ward Jr.

Ward, 20, was struck and killed by Stewart’s car after attempting to confront him under caution following an on-track incident between the two. The young racer was laid to rest last Thursday.

“This is just hard to go through, so everybody is going to have to prayerfully work their way through it,” said Gibbs, who also mentioned to Gluck that he’s been hesitant to reach out to Stewart because he’s been told by the driver’s representatives that he was taking some time for himself.

Last weekend at Michigan, Stewart Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood said that Stewart himself will make the final decision on when he’ll climb back inside his No. 14 SHR Chevrolet.

Additionally, Frood said that Stewart was “surrounded…by his closest friends and family” and that his current location “is of a private nature.”

As of now, no official announcement has yet been made by SHR on Stewart’s status for Saturday night’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Burton, his most recent substitute in the No. 14, told NBCSN’s NASCAR AMERICA yesterday that he and SHR have not talked about him filling in again at Bristol.

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