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49ers linebacker Aldon Smith suspended by NFL (Yahoo Sports)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith has been suspended for nine games by the NFL after a series of off-field legal issues.

A statement Friday from the league said Smith had violated the NFL’s substance abuse and personal conduct policies.

Smith won’t be eligible to return until Nov. 10, the day after the 49ers’ game against the New Orleans Saints.

”Our organization has known this decision would come and we have prepared for it as a team,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said in a statement. ”Aldon has taken responsibility for his actions and has continued to show growth personally and professionally. We will continue to support him, but it is time to put this matter behind us and focus on the season ahead.”

The 24-year-old Smith, one of the NFL’s top pass rushers, missed five games last season to undergo treatment at an in-patient facility following his DUI arrest Sept. 20.

Just before training camp began last month, the 24-year-old Smith was sentenced to serve three years of probation and to spend 11 days with a work crew after he pleaded no contest to drunken driving and weapons charges.

He has repeatedly said he has been sober since his DUI arrest last September. Smith played in a 27-7 home loss to the Colts on Sept. 22, two days after he was arrested and jailed on suspicion of DUI and marijuana possession. After the game, he publicly apologized for his behavior and later announced he would leave for treatment.

While the Niners went on a five-game winning streak without him, Smith’s menacing presence was sorely missed. The team still picked up his 2015 contract option this spring.

In his latest run-in with the law, Smith was arrested April 13 at Los Angeles International Airport. Police said Smith was randomly selected for a secondary screening and became uncooperative with the process, telling a TSA agent that he had a bomb. No charges were filed.

In November, he pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon, stemming from a June 2012 party at his home. Investigators said several shots were fired, two partygoers were injured and Smith was stabbed. In the subsequent investigation, prosecutors say detectives found five unregistered, illegal weapons in Smith’s house.

Last season, Smith finished with 8 1/2 sacks and 34 tackles in 11 games with eight starts. He was initially worked back in slowly, but demonstrated he had stayed in shape while away.

Selected seventh overall in the 2011 draft out of Missouri, Smith had a franchise-record 19 1/2 sacks during the 2012 season for the 49ers, who lost to Baltimore in the Super Bowl after that season.

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Stewart says Ward’s death will affect him forever (Yahoo Sports)

HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — Unshaven and with a quivering voice, NASCAR superstar Tony Stewart said the death of Kevin Ward Jr. will ”affect my life forever” as he returned to the track Friday for the first time since his car struck and killed the fellow driver during a sprint race in New York three weeks ago.

Stewart read from a statement that, his team said, he wrote himself. He spoke just under 2 1/2 minutes, pausing several times to compose himself. He took no questions about the incident that it still being investigated by law enforcement officials.

”This has been one of the toughest tragedies I’ve ever had to deal with, both professionally and personally,” Stewart said in a packed media room on the infield at Atlanta Motor Speedway. ”This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one has to experience in their life. That being said, I know that the pain and mourning that Kevin Ward’s family and friends are experiencing is something that I can’t possibly imagine.”

He mentioned Ward’s parents and three sisters by name, saying he wanted them ”to know that every day I’m thinking about them and praying for them.”

The brief news conference presented a much different side to the brash driver known as ”Smoke,” whose explosive temper has led to clashes with the media and fellow drivers. Wearing a black polo shirt and blue jeans, Stewart delivered his 285-word statement in a quivering tone, his eyes moist.

He skipped three races after Ward’s death, going into seclusion at his rural Indiana home. Stewart’s team said he needed time to grieve, and some questioned if he felt guilt over the crash.

During an Aug. 9 sprint-car event in upstate New York, Stewart and Ward’s cars appeared to bump while racing into a turn, sending Ward’s car spinning. The 20-year-old Ward climbed from his wrecked machine and wandered onto a darkened track in a black racing suit, apparently wanting to make his displeasure known to the three-time NASCAR champion. One car appeared to swerve to avoid Ward, but he was struck by the back right tire of Stewart’s car.

”I’ve taken the last couple of weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family and also to cope with the accident in my own way,” Stewart said. ”It’s given me the time to think about life and how easy it is to take it for granted. I miss my team, my teammates and I miss being back in the race car, and I think being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time.”

The 43-year-old Stewart pulled out of the race at nearby Watkins Glen the morning after Ward was killed, and then skipped events at Michigan and Bristol.

But with two weeks left until the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Stewart is preparing to go racing again. He rolled onto the track for a 90-minute practice session Friday afternoon, cheered by fans as his No. 14 Chevrolet exited the garage. It didn’t take long to get back up to speed. Early on, he had the 17th-fastest time among the 44 drivers attempting to qualify, turning a lap of more than 187 mph.

Stewart will be back for qualifying Friday evening, with the race set for Sunday night on the 1.54-mile trioval.

Not long after Stewart spoke to the media, NASCAR announced he would be eligible for the playoff if he wins either the Atlanta race or next week at Richmond, the final event before the 16-driver championship field is set.

Mike Helton, president of the governing body, said Stewart received a special waiver that normally applies to a driver who misses a race for medical reasons.

Helton said NASCAR made the decision after consulting with third-party experts who ”were relevant under these circumstances.” He would not elaborate.

”We want to join everybody in racing in welcoming Tony back,” Helton said. ”He’s a great asset to NASCAR. He’s a great champion, a great participant in our sport. It’s great to have him back.”

Shortly before practice, Stewart chatted in the garage with fellow driver Kurt Busch. Another top driver, Denny Hamlin, said returning to the track should be good therapy for Stewart.

”From my standpoint, getting in a race car always makes whatever is going on outside in your life a little bit better,” Hamlin said.

Asked if it was fair to make Stewart eligible for the Chase, Hamlin wavered a bit.

”I don’t know. It’s a very vague thing,” he said. ”It’s tough to say what’s considered medical and not. Either way, I’m fine with Tony. In or out, it’s good with me.”

Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood said it was ”100 percent” Stewart’s decision to return at one of NASCAR’s fastest tracks.

”I think for Tony, it’s all about the healing process,” Frood said. ”Besides his mom, his dad, his sister, his niece and nephew, his family is here at the racetrack. Part of the healing process is to be with family he’s been with since (entering NASCAR) in 1999. Knowing these people will help him get through this.”

Asked if Stewart had reached out to Ward’s family, Frood said the driver sent flowers and a card around the time of the funeral.

”Besides, that, he’s been very respectful of them and their time to grieve,” Frood said. ”It’s important for Tony to spend time with the family. I do think that will happen at the appropriate time.”

No one answered Friday at a home number listed for Kevin Ward Sr. But, in an interview with The Syracuse Post-Standard just a few days after his son’s death, he ”there’s no reason for” the crash.

”Is he going to say what he done?” the elder Ward asked.

Stewart said he knows there are plenty of questions surrounding Ward’s death. Many of those have focused on whether he was trying to frighten a young driver who had the nerve to challenge him over a racing crash. Authorities said Friday that the law enforcement investigation will last for at least another two weeks.

”Tony is very emotional,” Frood said. ”But Tony is ready to be in the race car. He wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t.”

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

Sara Errani outlasts Venus Williams at US Open (Yahoo Sports)

NEW YORK (AP) — Sara Errani wagged her finger and cupped her hand to her ear for the U.S. Open fans who tried to will Venus Williams to victory.

Two points from defeat, the diminutive Italian rallied to force a third-set tiebreaker and outlasted Williams in a match that was both lopsided and tight.

Errani won 6-0, 0-6, 7-6 (5) in the third round Friday after Williams had a chance to serve out the match in the final set.

Williams twice came back from down a break in the third but was done in by too many unforced errors – she had 52 in the match.

Errani, seeded 13th, next faces 121st-ranked qualifier Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who stunned second-seeded Simona Halep 7-6 (6), 6-2. The 32-year-old Lucic-Baroni hadn’t made a Grand Slam round of 16 since 1999.

Trying to close out the match at 5-3 in the third set, the 19th-seeded Williams had one of her eight double-faults.

Errani won just 12 games in three previous meetings with Williams. But in the first set, Williams couldn’t take advantage of her power, making just 30 percent of her first serves.

Errani used her quickness to run Williams around the court, and the 34-year-old looked sluggish after playing a long doubles match with her sister on Thursday night.

”Even if I won the first set 6-love, she’s an amazing player,” Errani said in an on-court interview.

And in the second, Williams indeed looked like the seven-time major champion she is, pouncing on Errani’s soft serves.

Errani just had a little more left in the final set.

”I was ready to just fight,” said Errani, who wasn’t thrilled with fans yelling out support for her opponent during her serves.

Williams had four more unforced errors in the tiebreaker. And Errani’s quick reflexes, honed in doubles, gave her match point when she stabbed a backhand volley to return what looked like a sure winner by Williams.

The 5-foot-4 Errani reached the final at the French Open and the semis at the U.S. Open in 2012, but both times she was routed by power players: Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams.

Big sister Venus couldn’t do the same Friday, though she had another chance at victory in a doubles match later with Serena.

Earlier, Peng Shuai again beat a seeded player to reach her second straight Grand Slam round of 16. Two days after upsetting fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska, Peng defeated 28th-seeded Roberta Vinci 6-4, 6-3.

The Chinese veteran had gone two years without making it past the second round at a major tournament before her Wimbledon run this summer. But she didn’t meet any seeded players in the first three rounds there before losing to eventual champion Petra Kvitova in straight sets.

This time, Peng, ranked 39th, will face 14th-seeded Lucie Safarova or 22nd-seeded Alize Cornet to try to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.

Peng said she’ll need ”more courage” in that match.

She’ll have the momentum of two straight sharp performances. With third-ranked Li Na sidelined by a knee injury, Peng’s success is giving the fans in China something to cheer.

”I don’t know how it’s on Sunday,” she said. ”I hope I will be same.”

The 31-year-old Vinci had made the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open the last two years but lost in the opening round at the first three major tournaments of 2014.

Ninth-seeded Jelena Jankovic advanced by routing Johanna Larsson 6-1, 6-0. The 96th-ranked Larsson had upset Sloane Stephens in the second round.

Sixth-seeded Angelique Kerber also was upset, losing 6-1, 7-5 to Belinda Bencic, a 17-year-old making her U.S. Open debut.

On the men’s side, fourth-seeded David Ferrer advanced to the third round when Bernard Tomic withdrew because of a left hip injury.

Seventh-seeded Grigor Dimitrov and 20th-seeded Gael Monfils both moved on in straight sets.

NASCAR will let Tony Stewart in Chase with win (Yahoo Sports)

HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — NASCAR says Tony Stewart will be allowed to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship if he qualifies despite missing three races following the death of a sprint car driver at a New York track.

NASCAR President Mike Helton said Friday that Stewart would need to win at Atlanta on Sunday night or at the regular-season finale next week in Richmond to lock up a spot in the championship.

Stewart will race this weekend for the first time since the Aug. 9 death of Kevin Ward Jr. at an upstate New York dirt track. He was struck and killed by Stewart’s car as he walked on the track during the race to confront the NASCAR veteran over being spun one lap earlier.

Vikings WR Simpson gets 3-game suspension by NFL (Yahoo Sports)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Jerome Simpson has been suspended for three games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, his second such punishment in three seasons.

The league announced the punishment Friday, putting Simpson on the sideline without pay until Sept. 22 when the Vikings begin practice for a Week 4 matchup with Atlanta.

He won’t count against the 53-man active roster until then, creating an opportunity for Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith, both of whom spent last year on the practice squad as undrafted rookies, to survive the final cuts and make the team for now.

Simpson will sit out games against St. Louis, New England and New Orleans. Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings are the top two wide receivers, with Jarius Wright the only other player with NFL experience at the position.

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner, asked recently about the possibility of losing Simpson, the team’s best deep threat, dismissed any concern.

”You have to have a varied plan. Unfortunately, in this game, guys miss,” Turner said.

Simpson traveled to NFL headquarters last week for an appeal hearing, but his effort ultimately had no effect on the ban. Simpson was arrested last November on suspicion of drunken driving, and in January he pleaded guilty to careless driving and refusing to submit to a chemical test while avoiding the DUI charge.

Simpson denied he’d been drinking to the state trooper who arrested him when his sports car was stalled in a freeway lane just outside of downtown Minneapolis. His attorney, David Valentini, has said Simpson would have passed had he taken a blood alcohol test that day.

But the league considers the past in assessing punishment, and Simpson previously was suspended for the first three games of the 2012 season following a felony drug conviction. That stemmed from a marijuana shipment that authorities found at his home in Kentucky while he played for Cincinnati in 2011. He was still on probation for that at the time of his arrest in Minnesota last fall.

The Vikings have seen enough good behavior from Simpson off the field and glimpses of potential on it that they’ve signed him to three consecutive one-year contracts, at relative bargains because of his trouble. Only one of his eight career touchdown catches has been with the Vikings, but he established career highs last season with 726 receiving yards and an average of 15.1 yards per catch.

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