HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — Speaking quietly and with a trembling voice, NASCAR superstar Tony Stewart said Friday that the death of Kevin Ward Jr. will "affect my life forever" as he returned to the track for the first time since his car struck and killed the fellow driver during a sprint-car race in New York three weeks ago.
"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."
Stewart said he could not answer questions about the incident — it remains under police investigation — and he left the news conference after reading a short statement. Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood said it was "100 percent" Stewart's decision to race and that his 43-year-old driver was "emotional" but ready to go on Sunday night in Atlanta.
The three-time NASCAR champion has not raced since his car hit Ward at an Aug. 9 sprint car event in upstate New York. Stewart pulled out of the race at Watkins Glen the next morning, then skipped races at Michigan and Bristol Motor Speedway.
Stewart, who was described by police as "visibly shaken" the night of Ward's death, has been in seclusion ever since. Stewart's only comment since the crash was a statement the day after the crash in which he said "there aren't words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr."
"Tony has sent the family flowers and a card around the services, aside from that, he has been very respectful of their time to grieve," Frood said. "It is very important to Tony to spend time with the family ... but is being respectful."
Ward had climbed from his car after it had spun while racing for position with Stewart. The 20-year-old walked down onto the racing surface waving his arms in an apparent attempt to confront Stewart.
Authorities said the first car to pass Ward had to swerve to miss hitting him. The front of Stewart's car then appeared to clear Ward, but Ward was struck by the right rear tire and hurtled through the air. He died of blunt force trauma.
Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero has said investigators did not have any evidence to support criminal intent by Stewart. Povero said Thursday the investigation is still ongoing.
Meanwhile, the NASCAR superstar will move forward with his career and attempt to salvage his season.
NASCAR released a statement saying that Stewart was eligible to return because he "has received all necessary clearances required to return to all racing activities." NASCAR said it would have no further comment until President Mike Helton speaks Friday afternoon.
Stewart, who has 48 career Cup wins in 542 starts, is one of the biggest stars in the garage. His peers have been protective of him as questions emerged in the aftermath of the crash, and it pained them that Stewart was grieving in private and had cut off communication with so many of them.
"Great to have Smoke back at the track," tweeted Watkins Glen winner AJ Allmendinger.
"Glad to have my boss and my friend back at the track this weekend. #14 #SmokeWillRise," said Tony Gibson, Danica Patrick's crew chief at SHR.
NASCAR rules state a driver must attempt to either qualify or race the car in every points-paying event to be eligible for Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, unless a waiver is granted. There was no immediate word if NASCAR would grant that waiver.
Since Ward's death, NASCAR has announced a rule that prohibits drivers from exiting from a crashed or disabled vehicle — unless it is on fire — until safety personnel arrive. Last week, Denny Hamlin crashed while leading at Bristol and stayed in his car until safety personnel arrived.
But Hamlin then exited his vehicle and angrily tossed a safety device at Kevin Harvick as he passed by moments later. He was not penalized.