Tony Stewart back at the track, looking to heal

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Stewart: Tragedy Will Affect My Life Forever
HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) -- Tony Stewart took his seat on the podium - unshaven, his eyes glassy - and unfolded a sheet of paper. His voice quivered as he read, pausing to maintain his composure as he described the death of a driver he hit as "one of the toughest tragedies I've ever had to deal with."

This was a far cry from the brash driver known around the track as "Smoke."

Ninety minutes later, he climbed into his No. 14 car and sped toward the high-banked oval at Atlanta Motor Speedway, drawing a cheer from the crowd gathered around his garage. He quickly got up to speed, turning laps of nearly 190 mph, a racer back in his element.

Ready or not, Stewart is back on the track.

Heartbroken but eager to heal, Stewart rejoined the race for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship surrounded by those he considers a second family - his team, his crew, his rivals. He missed the last three races, going into seclusion after the sprint car he was driving struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr., who had stepped on the track to confront him during a race.

He'll get back to work as an investigation continues in upstate New York. Authorities said Friday that the probe into the cause of the crash will last at least another two weeks. No decision has been made about whether Stewart will face charges.

"This is something that will definitely affect my life forever," Stewart said. "This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one has to experience in their life. That being said, I know that the pain and mourning that Kevin Ward's family and friends are experiencing is something that I can't possibly imagine."

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Tony Stewart back at the track, looking to heal
Sprint Cup drivers Tony Stewart, right, and Ryan Newman, left, share a laugh prior to qualifying at the Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., Friday, March 27, 2015. Rain delayed the practice and qualifying for Sunday's STP 500 Sprint Cup race. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
MARTINSVILLE, VA - MARCH 28: Tony Stewart drives the #14 Code 3 Associates/Mobil 1 Chevrolet through the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 28, 2015 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Sprint Cup driver Tony Stewart gets into his car prior to qualifying at the Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., Friday, March 27, 2015. Rain delayed the practice and qualifying for Sunday's STP 500 Sprint Cup race. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
FONTANA, CA - MARCH 20: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Rush Truck Centers/ Mobil 1 Chevrolet, climbs into his car prior to qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 20, 2015 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Tony Stewart high-fives race fans before the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship series auto race, Sunday, Nov. 16,2014 in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
Danica Patrick, followed by Tony Stewart, greets fans before the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship series auto race, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014, in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/David Graham)
Tony Stewart prepares for the Ford EcoBoost 400 auto race practice, Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/Jim Topper)
Tony Stewart prepares for the Ford EcoBoost 400 auto race practice, Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014 in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/Jim Topper)
Tony Stewart takes turn four during practice session for the NASCAR auto race Ford EcoBoost 400 in Homestead, Fla., Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Jim Topper)
NASCAR driver Tony Stewart gets in his car before practice at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014, in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/David Graham)
Danica Patrick followed by Tony Stewart high-five race fans before the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship series auto race, Sunday, Nov. 16,2014 in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart waves to the crowd before the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Hampton, Ga. Stewart was racing for the first time since being involved in a fatal dirt track accident in upstate New York. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Tony Stewart (14) drives into the first turn at the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Hampton, Ga. Stewart was racing for the first time since his car struck and killed a fellow driver during a sprint race in New York three weeks ago. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart (14) drives his damaged car to the garage after hitting the wall during a NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Hampton, Ga.. (AP Photo/Joe Sebo)
Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart (14) looks over the damage to his car after he hit the wall during a NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Hampton, Ga.. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
HAMPTON, GA - AUGUST 31: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Bass Pro Shops / Mobil 1 Chevrolet, walks through the garage area with NASCAR security after an on track incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 31, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Nick Laham/NASCAR via Getty Images)
HAMPTON, GA - AUGUST 31: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Bass Pro Shops / Mobil 1 Chevrolet, walks through the garage area with NASCAR security after an on track incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 31, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Nick Laham/NASCAR via Getty Images)
HAMPTON, GA - AUGUST 31: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Bass Pro Shops / Mobil 1 Chevrolet, races during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 31, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images)
HAMPTON, GA - AUGUST 31: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Bass Pro Shops / Mobil 1 Chevrolet, pulls into his garage stall after being involved in an on-track incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on August 31, 2014 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Nick Laham/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart (14) gets a tire during an NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Hampton, Ga. Stewart was racing for the first time since being involved in a fatal dirt track incident in N.Y. (AP Photo/Bryn Anderson)
A fan shows his support for Sprint Cup Series driver Tony Stewart before the start of an NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Hampton, Ga. Stewart was racing for the first time since being involved in a fatal dirt track incident in upstate New York. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
In this Friday, Aug. 8, 2014 photograph, Tony Stewart stands in the garage area after a practice session for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen International, in Watkins Glen N.Y. Stewart struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr., 20, a sprint car driver who had climbed from his car and was on the track trying to confront Stewart during a race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York on Saturday night. Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said his department's investigation is not criminal and that Stewart was "fully cooperative" and appeared "very upset" over what had happened. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)
Video: NASCAR's Tony Stewart Hits And Kills Kevin Ward Jr After He Got Out Of Car To Complain http://t.co/2JiTbHd7Aj http://t.co/d4JAV8Mbiq
Sheriff says #TonyStewart investigation is not criminal. Stewart hits, kills driver on track. http://t.co/gGjTJkrmTK http://t.co/p8HovWh2ax
Driver Tony Stewart walks in the pit area after a practice session for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series Quicken Loans 400 auto race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., Friday, June 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Pic from witness of Sheriff's Deputies at Stewart's sprint car #TonyStewart http://t.co/Dfd8mp27x7
WATKINS GLEN, NY - AUGUST 08: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, sits in his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on August 8, 2014 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
WATKINS GLEN, NY - AUGUST 08: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, looks on in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on August 8, 2014 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Driver Tony Stewart talks with his crew after practice for Sunday's Sprint Cup Series at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Saturday, July 12, 2014 in Loudon, NH (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Tony Stewart prepares to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway Monday, April 7, 2014, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Ralph Lauer)
TURIN, NY - AUGUST 14: General view of a shirt for Kevin Ward Jr. is shown outside of South Lewis Senior High School following the funeral service on August 14, 2014 in Turin, New York. Ward was killed August 9, when he exited his car during a dirt track race and was struck by a car driven by NASCAR driver Tony Stewart. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)
TURIN, NY - AUGUST 14: Mourners let balloons go following the funeral service for Kevin Ward Jr. at South Lewis Senior High School on August 14, 2014 in Turin, New York. Ward was killed August 9, when he exited his car during a dirt track race and was struck by a car driven by NASCAR driver Tony Stewart. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)
TURIN, NY - AUGUST 14: Pallbearers help to carry the casket of sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. at South Lewis Senior High School on August 14, 2014 in Turin, New York. Ward was killed August 9, when he exited his car during a dirt track race and was struck by a car driven by NASCAR driver Tony Stewart. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)
TURIN, NY - AUGUST 14: Pallbearers help to carry the casket of sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. at South Lewis Senior High School on August 14, 2014 in Turin, New York. Ward was killed August 9, when he exited his car during a dirt track race and was struck by a car driven by NASCAR driver Tony Stewart. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)
TURIN, NY - AUGUST 14: a man walks past a hearse during the funeral service for sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. on August 14, 2014 in Turin, New York. Ward was killed August 9, when he exited his car during a dirt track race and was struck by a car driven by NASCAR driver Tony Stewart. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)
Canandaigua Motorsports Park is seen Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Canandaigua, N.Y. On Saturday night, Tony Stewart struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr., 20, a sprint car driver who had climbed from his car and was on the track trying to confront Stewart during a race at the track in upstate New York. Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said his department's investigation is not criminal and that Stewart was "fully cooperative" and appeared "very upset" over what had happened. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
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He mentioned Ward's parents and three sisters by name, saying he wanted them "to know that every day I'm thinking about them and praying for them."

Stewart took no questions about Ward's death because of the ongoing investigation, but said he wasn't sure if he had the emotional strength to answer them anyway. But his timid, halting delivery presented a much different side to a racer whose infamous temper has sparked clashes with the media and fellow drivers.

It was business as usual when Stewart switched to his racing suit. He signed autographs. He talked with his crew about the car's setup. He chatted up Kurt Busch.

During a 90-minute practice, Stewart posted a top lap of 189.642 mph - 10th-fastest among the 44 drivers attempting to qualify, quickly stamping himself as a contender in Sunday night's race.

If Stewart should win this event, or next week's race at Richmond, he would qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. While NASCAR requires its drivers to compete in every event to make the playoff, Stewart was granted a waiver that is normally applied to a driver who misses a race for medical reasons.

Mike Helton, president of the governing body, said NASCAR made the decision after consulting with third-party experts who "were relevant under these circumstances." He would not elaborate.

"We want to join everybody in racing in welcoming Tony back," Helton said. "He's a great asset to NASCAR. He's a great champion, a great participant in our sport."

There was no word from Ward's family on Stewart's return. A woman who answered Friday at the home of Kevin Ward Sr. said the family would not be commenting.

During an Aug. 9 sprint-car event in upstate New York, Stewart and Ward's cars bumped while racing into a turn, sending Ward's car spinning. Ward climbed from his wrecked machine and wandered onto a darkened track in a black racing suit, wanting to make his displeasure known to the three-time NASCAR champion.

One car appeared to swerve to avoid Ward, but he was struck by the back right tire of Stewart's car.

The 43-year-old Stewart pulled out of the race at nearby Watkins Glen the morning after Ward was killed, and then skipped events at Michigan and Bristol.

"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," 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, and I think being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time."

Stewart was set to be back on the track Friday evening for qualifying. Driver Denny Hamlin said it was all good therapy.

"From my standpoint, getting in a race car always makes whatever is going on outside in your life a little bit better," Hamlin said.

Asked if it was fair to make Stewart eligible for the Chase, Hamlin wavered a bit.

"It's a very vague thing," he said. "It's tough to say what's considered medical and not."

Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood said the driver sent flowers and a card to Ward's family around the time of the funeral. He hopes to meet with them at some point.

"He's been very respectful of them and their time to grieve," Frood said. "It's important for Tony to spend time with the family. I do think that will happen at the appropriate time."

Stewart said he knows there are plenty of questions surrounding Ward's death. Many of those have focused on whether he was trying to frighten a young driver who had the nerve to challenge him over a racing crash. But he emphasized that the best way for him to heal was to put on his helmet.

"Tony is ready to be in the race car," Frood said. "He wouldn't be here if he wasn't."
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