HAMPTON, Ga. – Despite the ongoing investigation into his role in Kevin Ward Jr.'s death, Tony Stewart will race this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway to recover from it.
"I think for Tony, it's all about this healing process," Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood said during a Friday news conference. "That's part of why he's in the car.
"The other side of it is he's a racer. We have 270 employees. I think him putting a helmet on will help him cope with this situation. "
After missing three consecutive Sprint Cup races after striking and killing Ward with his sprint car during an Aug. 9 race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York, Stewart returned Friday to his No. 14 Chevrolet.
Before the news conference with Frood, Stewart read a 2-minute, 30-second statement that SHR spokesman Mike Arning said had been written by the three-time champion.
"This has been one of the toughest tragedies I've ever had to deal with both professionally and personally," Stewart said in an occasionally halting speech and soft-spoken voice that cracked a few times. "This is something that will definitely affect my life forever. This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life. With that being said, I know that the pain and the mourning that Kevin Ward's family and friends are experiencing is something that I can't possibly imagine.
"I want Kevin's father, Kevin Sr., and his mother Pam, and his sisters Christi, Kayla, Katelyn, to know that every day I'm thinking about them and praying for them. The racing community is a large family, as you guys know. Everyone's saddened with this tragedy.I want to thank all my friends and family for their support through this tough emotional time, and the support from the NASCAR community, my partners, all of our employees, it's been overwhelming.
"I've taken the last couple weeks off 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. I miss my team, my teammates. I miss being back in the racecar. I think being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time. I also understand that all of you have many questions and want a lot of answers, however I need to respect the ongoing investigation process and cannot answer and address the questions at this time. Emotionally, I'm not sure if I could answer them anyway. We're here to race this weekend, and I appreciate your respect. There will be a day when I can sit here and answer the questions."
Stewart's decision carries a lot of risk because he still could face criminal charges that could derail his career and cause sponsors to desert his four-car team. Frood said the decision was "100% Tony's," and it might be viewed as among the most defiant moves of a life defined by them – though this was provoked by grief rather than the combustible side of his fiery personality.
Frood said Stewart's family, including his mom, dad, sister, niece and nephew, was in attendance at Atlanta, and that Stewart needed their support as well as his extended family in NASCAR.
"These people are going to help him get through this," Frood said. "I think it's going to be very overwhelming being in that garage today. He's going to feel an awful lot of support. This is his family. It's the crew members, it's the officials, it's the drivers. It's his family that he's been with since 1999. This is going to be part of that process for him.
"When he puts that helmet on in practice, I'm quite convinced he'll be ready to race the car, he'll be able to separate the two. … It's been a difficult two weeks. But Tony is ready to be in the racecar. He wouldn't be here if he wasn't."
Frood said Stewart had sent flowers and a card to the Ward family. "Besides that he's been very respectful of them and their time to grieve," Frood said. "I do know that it will be very important, it's important for Tony, to spend time with the family. I do believe that will happen in the appropriate time."
Frood declined to comment on the specifics of the accident, citing the ongoing investigation.
Stewart was dressed in a short-sleeve black shirt and there were no sponsor logos on the dais or table.
Sponsor Mobil 1 has its logos on the No. 14 Chevrolet at Atlanta.
After Stewart's statement, he left the media center without taking questions.
A statement from the Ontario County (N.Y.) sheriff's office released after the news conference read:
"The investigation into the death of Kevin A. Ward Jr., which occurred August 9, 2014, at the Canandaigua, New York Motorsports Park will continue for at least another two weeks. The Ontario County Office of Sheriff has reviewed this investigation, as it has been developed to date, with members of the District Attorney's Office. The Office of Sheriff will continue to apprise the District Attorney of information as it is developed. When the investigation is completed, the news media will be advised as to what action will be taken. The Ontario County Office of Sheriff thanks all media outlets for their patience and understanding as we continue to thoroughly investigate this tragic crash."
NASCAR president Mike Helton said at 2 p.m. that the sanctioning body will grant Stewart a waiver to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup if he wins one of the next two races.
NASCAR's cutoff for the 10-race Chase is Sept. 6 at Richmond International Raceway. Stewart would need to win this weekend or next week at Richmond.
NASCAR implemented a rule formalizing procedure for drivers who are involved in accidents or who are unable to make forward progress in their cars in the wake of the incident, in which Ward exited his race car and was walking down the dirt track under caution when Stewart's car hit him.
Drivers now are required to remain strapped in their cars — unless they are in immediate danger from fire or another hazard — until safety crews arrive and can escort them from the scene. No driver is allowed to walk onto the racing surface.
After SHR vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli said it would be ''business as usual'' at Watkins Glen International the day after the incident, the team quickly reversed course and said Stewart would sit out. Nationwide Series regular Regan Smith filled in for him there.
Stewart, who was described by police at the accident scene as being ''visibly shaken," released a statement that Sunday that read:
"There aren't words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. It's a very emotional time for all involved, and it is the reason I've decided not to participate in today's race at Watkins Glen. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and everyone affected by this tragedy."
Stewart has been in seclusion since the incident.
Burton was behind the wheel of the No. 14 Chevrolet at Michigan and last week at Bristol Motor Speedway, notching finishes of 37th and 15th, respectively.
If Stewart doesn't qualify for the playoffs, this will mark the second year in a row NASCAR will be missing one of its stars during the championship run. Stewart was sidelined for the final 15 races in 2013 after breaking his leg in a sprint car accident. He required three surgeries and months of rehabilitation to be able to get back in a Cup car for this year's Daytona 500 in February.