A visibly emotional Tony Stewart came back to his favorite place Friday: The racetrack. But it was a somber time for Stewart, clearly shaken to his core.
The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, who had missed three consecutive races after being involved in a fatal sprint car crash in New York state Aug. 9, met the media Friday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he will compete in Sunday's Oral-B USA 500.
This was Stewart's first public appearance since the accident. The crash, which occurred at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park, claimed the life of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. The accident is still under investigation by the Ontario County Sheriff's Department, and Stewart could face criminal and/or civil litigation as a result. Law enforcement authorities issued a statement Friday afternoon saying the investigation "will continue for at least another two weeks."
Shortly after 1 p.m. ET, Stewart appeared at the AMS Media Center, where he read a brief statement and then departed. SHR executive vice president Brett Frood answered a handful of questions from the media. There were no team logos, no sponsors logos, just a plain white background behind Stewart and Frood.
"This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life," said Stewart, his voice trembling as he read from a text that team spokesman Mike Arning said Stewart wrote himself. "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."
Stewart thanked his friends, family and the NASCAR community for standing by him.
"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," he 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. I think getting back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time."
Stewart said the ongoing investigation into the accident precluded him from answering any questions about it.
"Emotionally, I'm not sure if I could answer them anyway," Stewart said.
In his first action back on the track, Stewart was 10th in opening Sprint Cup practice and qualified 12th for Sunday's Oral-B USA 500.