HAMPTON, Ga. — staff report — Harold Hinson photo — Tony Stewart returned to the race track Friday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the first time since the Aug. 9 accident at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park that resulted in the death of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr.
A somber and emotional Stewart met the media, reading a prepared statement. He declined to answer questions.
“This has been one of the toughest tragedies I’ve ever had to deal with, both professionally and personally. 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,” Stewart said. “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., his mother Pam and his sisters Christy, Kayla and Katelyn to know that every day I am thinking about them and praying for them. The racing community is a large family as you guys know and everyone is 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 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 in my own way. It has 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 that 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 or 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. Thank you.”
Stewart-Haas Racing Executive Vice President Brett Frood answered questions following Stewart’s statement, but declined to comment on the status of the ongoing investigation of the accident being conducted by the Ontario County Sheriff’s Department.
NASCAR President Mike Helton later confirmed that Stewart has received a waiver from NASCAR to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup should Stewart win either Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway or the event scheduled for Sept. 6 at Richmond (Va.) Int’l Raceway. At this time Stewart is not eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup and must win one of the next two races in order to qualify.
“This has been a very unique set of circumstances to Tony and to our sport and as the league it is our responsibility to try and make decisions that are correct and right, sometimes we evaluate circumstances that are given to us and then make those decisions as correctly as we can,” Helton said. “After evaluating the circumstances around this occurrence we’ve come to the conclusion that Tony would be eligible to participate in the Chase if he were to earn a spot in it.”
The Ontario Sheriff’s Department also released a statement indicating that the investigation into the incident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park will continue for at least another two weeks.