Hampton, GA (SportsNetwork.com) - Nearly three weeks after he struck and killed driver Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint car race at a dirt track in Upstate New York, Tony Stewart spoke publicly for the first time, expressing his sorrow.
During a press conference on Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the site of this weekend's 500-mile Sprint Cup Series race, a somewhat subdued Stewart read from a prepared statement, which lasted a little more than two minutes, but he did not take any questions from the media. He left the conference immediately after his statement.
"This has been one of the toughest tragedies I've ever had to deal with, both professionally and personally, and this is something that will definitely affect my life forever," Stewart said during his opening remarks. "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 and Katelyn, to know that everyday I am thinking about them and praying for them."
On Thursday, Stewart-Haas Racing announced that Stewart would return to his driving duties in the No. 14 Chevrolet at Atlanta.
Stewart, a three-time champion in NASCAR's premier series, missed the last three races -- Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol -- while he was in seclusion following his involvement in the fatal accident on Aug. 9 at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.
The incident occurred during a caution when Ward climbed out of his car and then walked down the dirt track, pointing his finger in the direction of Stewart and apparently yelling at him to express his displeasure. The right rear of Stewart's car hit Ward and dragged him briefly across the track.
The caution came when Stewart and Ward made contact while battling for position, with Ward spinning out and hitting the wall.
Currently, there are no criminal charges pending against Stewart. The investigation regarding Ward's death is still ongoing. Ward died from massive blunt trauma.
"The racing community is a large family, and everyone is saddened with this tragedy," Stewart added. "I want to thank all of my friends and family for their support through this tough and emotional time. And the support from the NASCAR community, my partners and all of our [Stewart-Haas Racing] employees has been overwhelming.
"I've taken the last couple of weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family and also to cope with the accident 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, and 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."
"I also understand that all of you [in the media] have many questions and want a lot of answers, but 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. I'm here to race this weekend, and I appreciate your respect. And there will be a day when I can sit here and answer the questions."
Shortly after Stewart spoke, the Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff's Department released a statement on the progress of its investigation. It will continue for at least two more weeks.
"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," Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said in the statement. "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."
Sprint Cup practice at Atlanta took place on Friday afternoon, and qualifying for Sunday's 500-mile event was scheduled for the evening. This will be the first time Stewart has competed in a Sprint Cup race since Aug. 3 at Pocono.
Stewart is presently 26th in the point standings and has yet to win a race this season. Atlanta and Richmond (Sept. 6) are the two remaining races during the regular season. The Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins on Sept. 14 at Chicagoland.
Regan Smith substituted for Stewart in the No. 14 Chevrolet at Watkins Glen, while Jeff Burton filled in for him at Michigan and Bristol.
Brett Frood, executive vice president of Stewart-Haas Racing, participated in Stewart's press conference and took questions from the media after Stewart had departed. Frood explained why Stewart decided to return to racing at Atlanta.
"I think for Tony, it's all about this healing process," Frood said. "That's part of why he's in the car. Besides, his mom, his dad, his sister, and his niece and nephew are here at this racetrack.
"It's part of the healing process of being with his family that he's been with since 1999, knowing that these people are going to help him get through this. I think that's one side of it. The other side of it is he's a racer. We have 270 employees [at SHR]. I think him putting a helmet on will help him cope with this situation."
Frood also noted that Stewart has personally reached out to Ward's family members.
"Tony has sent the family flowers and a card around the services," he said. "Besides that, he's been very respectful of them and their time to grieve. 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."