HAMPTON, Ga. — Jeff Gordon expects Tony Stewart to be a contender in his return to the track.
Kevin Harvick is on the pole, but Stewart, who starts 12th, is in the spotlight in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series race tonight at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Stewart is competing for the first time since the sprint car he was driving struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. in an Aug. 9 race at a dirt track in upstate New York.
Gordon was impressed when Stewart ran close to 190 mph in practice this week. Stewart was a bit slower in qualifying at 187.907.
Still, Gordon said Friday that Stewart "may make quite a return."
Gordon and other drivers said the return to racing will provide therapy for Stewart, who was visibly emotional, with his voice breaking, as he read a prepared statement Friday. "I do think that the best thing for him is to be in that race car," Gordon said.
Said Harvick, Stewart's teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing: "Being in that car cures a lot of problems for a short time."
In his prepared statement, Stewart said he skipped the past three races "out of respect for Kevin and his family and also to cope with the accident in my own way."
"It's given me the time to think about life and how easy it is to take it for granted," Stewart said. "I missed my team, my teammates and missed being back in the race car. I think that being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time."
Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, one of Stewart's primary sponsors, released a statement Saturday expressing support for Stewart in his return. Morris said he met with Stewart last week.
"It made my heart ache to see him so devastated by this incident," said Morris, who described Stewart as "one of the most compassionate and kind-hearted individuals I have ever met."
Brad Keselowski will start beside Harvick on the front row.
It is the next-to-last race before the Chase for the Championship.
Stewart can make the 16-car Chase field with a win tonight or next week at Richmond, thanks to a waiver announced by NASCAR on Friday. NASCAR requires its drivers to compete in every event to make the playoff, but Stewart received the waiver that is normally applied to a driver who misses a race for medical reasons.
Gordon, the points leader, and other drivers supported the decision to grant Stewart the waiver.
"I think the whole intent of eligibility for the Chase is just so that somebody doesn't go just take a vacation after winning a few races," Gordon said. "That's the way I look at it. It's not for unforeseen circumstances or medical or anything like that to prevent you from going out and competing in the Chase."