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 rolled out of the garage. He'll 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."
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."
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. It's been a difficult two weeks," Frood said. "But Tony is ready to be in the race car. He wouldn't be here if he wasn't."