Tony Stewart speaks for first time since accident - CBS46 News

Tony Stewart speaks for first time since accident that killed fellow driver

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Tony Stewart will return to Sprint Cup competition on Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, 30 miles south of Downtown Atlanta, ending a three-race hiatus taken after he struck and killed a fellow driver during a dirt-track race.

On Friday, the three-time NASCAR champion read a statement to the media. He did not take questions.

Stewart has not spoken in public or raced since his car hit Kevin Ward Jr. at an Aug. 9 sprint car event in upstate New York.

"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," said Stewart in prepared remarks.

Stewart pulled out of the NASCAR race at Watkins Glen the next morning, then skipped races at Michigan and Bristol Motor Speedway.

"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," said Stewart.

Stewart acknowledged Ward's family members saying he though about them every day and prayed for them.

"I know the pain and the mourning that Kevin Ward's family and friends are experiencing is something that I can't possibly imagine," said Stewart.

Stewart then thanked his own friends and family for their support in the wake of the tragedy.

Stewart's only comment since the crash had been a statement the day after the crash in which he said "there aren't words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr."

Ward had climbed from his car after it had spun while racing for position with Stewart. The 20-year-old walked down onto the racing surface waving his arms in an apparent attempt to confront Stewart.

Authorities said the first car to pass Ward had to swerve to miss hitting him. The front of Stewart's car then appeared to clear Ward, but Ward was struck by the right rear tire and hurtled through the air. He died of blunt force trauma.

Stewart will return with a decision pending on whether he will be charged in Ward's death. Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero has said investigators did not have any evidence to support criminal intent by Stewart. Povero said Thursday the investigation is still ongoing.

"I also understand that all of you have many questions and want a lot of answers," Stewart said. "But, however, I need to respect the ongoing investigation process and cannot address the questions at this time."

Meanwhile, the 43-year-old NASCAR superstar will move forward with his career and attempt to salvage his season.

"I miss my team, my teammates, and I miss being back in the racecar and I think that being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time," said Stewart.

NASCAR released a statement saying that Stewart was eligible to return because he "has received all necessary clearances required to return to all racing activities." NASCAR said it would have no further comment until President Mike Helton spoke on Friday afternoon.

Stewart, who has 48 career Cup wins in 542 starts, is one of the biggest stars in the garage. His peers have been protective of him as questions emerged in the aftermath of the crash, and it pained them that Stewart was grieving in private and had cut off communication with so many of them.

NASCAR rules state a driver must attempt to either qualify or race the car in every points-paying event to be eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, unless a waiver is granted. There was no immediate word if NASCAR would grant that waiver.

Since Ward's death, NASCAR has announced a rule that prohibits drivers from exiting from a crashed or disabled vehicle - unless it is on fire - until safety personnel arrive.

Last week, Denny Hamlin crashed while leading at Bristol and stayed in his car until safety personnel arrived. But Hamlin then exited his vehicle and angrily tossed a safety device at Kevin Harvick as he passed by moments later. He was not penalized.

The race will take place on one of Atlanta's busiest weekends, which will also include Dragon Con, several college football games and Braves games among other events.

After a week of dry weather, rain is expected this weekend in Metro Atlanta for the race.

Copyright 2014 WGCL-TV (Meredith Corporation). The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.

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