HAMPTON, Ga. — Tony Stewart ended nearly three weeks of silence since his race car struck and killed a young driver at an upstate New York dirt track, voicing sympathy Friday for the family of Kevin Ward Jr. and suggesting a return to NASCAR competition this weekend would help him cope with lingering grief.
NASCAR formally welcomed him back for the Oral-B USA 500 on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway even though an investigation into Ward's death from blunt force trauma is ongoing.
At a news conference, Stewart solemnly sat at an elevated table, behind a plastic soda bottle emblazoned with his first name, and read a 21/2-minute statement.
"This has been one of the toughest tragedies I've ever had to deal with, both professionally and personally," Stewart said in a soft voice that quivered throughout. "This is something that will affect my life forever. This is a sadness and pain I hope no one ever has to experience in their life."
Much of the statement was an expression of empathy for Ward's family. Making a point to name Ward's parents and three sisters individually, he acknowledged their suffering: "I want them to know that every day I'm thinking about them and praying for them."
Stewart explained his withdrawal from the past three Sprint Cup races as a desire to display respect for Ward's family and to deal emotionally with the aftermath of the fatality. "It's given me time to think about life," said Stewart, who declined to take questions, "and how easy it is to take for granted."
The hiatus is over, he noted, because "I miss my team, my teammates. I miss being back in the race car. I think being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time."
NASCAR not only approved Stewart's return but granted a waiver that restores his slender hopes to advance to Sprint Cup's Chase for the Championship.
The Chase format, revamped this year, provides an appeals process for drivers who do not meet all eligibility requirements, one of which is to attempt to qualify for or race in each event at which Chase points are awarded. Stewart's case met the standard for "a very unique set of circumstances" to legitimize the waiver, NASCAR president Mike Helton said.
He must race to his first win Sunday or Sept. 6 in Richmond, Va., to vault above the cutoff line and into the top 16 qualifiers.