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Tony Stewart has supporters as he returns to track

NASCAR driver Tony Stewart speaks at a press

NASCAR driver Tony Stewart speaks at a press conference before practice at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., on July 12, 2013. Credit: AP / Cheryl Senter

HAMPTON, Ga. - Beth Bradford proudly posed for a photo in the Atlanta Motor Speedway infield Saturday morning while holding up the handmade "Welcome Back Smoke!" sign she made for Tony Stewart.

Dangle earrings with "14" on them -- his car number -- and assorted Stewart swag adorning her campsite made her allegiance clear.

"Smoke! That's what I'm talking about!" a passerby yelled after seeing the sign. "Make sure to tweet that picture!"

Bradford, 52, has been a Tony Stewart fan since she watched her first NASCAR race on TV during his rookie year in 1999. She said she was "elated" when she heard he was returning this weekend, and also said, "I know people who aren't Tony fans who are elated."

The sentiment in the infield has matched that of NASCAR's governing body, its drivers and the often-divisive world of social media. The racing community seems happy to have Stewart back in action for Sunday night's Oral-B USA 500, even as an investigation into the death of Kevin Ward Jr. continues in upstate New York.

Stewart, who will start 12th tonight, missed three Sprint Cup races following the Aug. 9 tragedy in which Stewart's car struck and killed Ward as Ward stood on the track at Canandaigua Motorsports Park following contact between the two that wrecked Ward's car.

NASCAR president Mike Helton called three-time Sprint Cup champ Stewart "a great asset to NASCAR" Friday during a news conference in which he announced that an exemption would allow Stewart to participate in the Chase for the Championship playoffs if he wins at Atlanta or next week in Richmond.

Four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon has backed Stewart both personally and professionally. During Stewart's time in seclusion, Gordon told the NBC MotorSportsTalk blog he wished he could give Stewart a hug. And Friday in the AMS infield media center he fully supported NASCAR's decision on Stewart.

"I think the whole intent of eligibility for the Chase is so that somebody doesn't just go take a vacation after winning a few races," said Gordon of the new format, in which someone who is in the top-30 in drivers points, wins a race and attempts to qualify for each regular-season race is virtually assured of being in the 16-car, 10-race playoff.

Stewart's primary sponsor, Bass Pro Shops, released a statement Saturday afternoon supporting Stewart.

"On behalf of the Bass Pro family, and as Tony's friend, we are proud to stand by him as he returns this weekend to the sport he loves so much," it read in part.

For Kevin Harvick, hearing his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate and car owner at the track was as important as seeing him. Harvick won the pole Friday night after getting a special message from Stewart following the second of three qualifying rounds. "He radioed to me that I needed to go back and do what I was doing in practice," he said. "Just good to have that reassurance on the radio next to you."

Brad Keselowski, who became a social-media sensation in 2012 for tweeting during a Daytona 500 delay and went on to win that year's Cup title, said his Twitter followers have been supportive of Stewart and that fans being happy is "the most important thing."

That said, he expressed frustration Friday over the lack of information available on Stewart's situation. "I feel like everyone is trying to have an opinion without having any information and that's a scary place to be," Keselowski said.

But Bradford's mind is already made up. "I've met him several times. He's a really nice guy," she said. "He's just really passionate about what he does and that's why he gets upset sometimes."

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