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NASCAR's Tony Stewart meets with reporters for first time since Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy

NASCAR auto racing driver Tony Stewart reads a

NASCAR auto racing driver Tony Stewart reads a statement during a news conference at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. Credit: AP / John Bazemore

HAMPTON, Ga. -- A subdued Tony Stewart met with reporters in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center Friday afternoon, the first public appearance for the NASCAR driver since his sprint car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. during a race in Canandaigua, N.Y. on Aug. 9.

Stewart, who will return to racing here Sunday in the Oral-B USA 500, read a statement but did not take questions.

"I miss being back in the racecar," Stewart said during the statement, which a Stewart-Haas spokesperson said the driver penned himself. "I think being back in the racecar this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time."

While saying the event will affect him "forever," Stewart mentioned Ward's father, mother and siblings by name, adding that he "can't possibly imagine" what they're going through. Stewart said he's praying for them and that "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."

Stewart, who was joined by Stewart-Haas Racing Executive Vice President Brett Frood, last raced in Sprint Cup on Aug. 3 at Pocono. Initially it was announced that he would race at Watkins Glen the day after the Ward tragedy. But soon after he was replaced by Regan Smith. Jeff Burton drove in Stewart's place at Michigan and Bristol. Following Stewart making his statement and leaving, Frood maintained once again that it's been entirely Stewart's decision on when he would return to the track.

During a subsequent news conference, NASCAR President Mike Helton said that "third-party experts" had been involved in the decision to allow Stewart to return to the car. When pressed on whether those experts were of a psychological or psychiatric background, Helton declined to answer. But earlier Helton referred to the mechanism allowing Stewart's return as "part of the normal process when a driver has been absent from participating."

Helton also announced that a win either Sunday or on Sept. 6 at Richmond in the regular-season finale could still qualify him for this year's Chase for the Championship.

By missing qualifying at both Michigan and Bristol, Stewart needed a waiver from NASCAR to stay in playoff contention, and got just that Friday. During Helton's press conference, he announced that due to the "very unique set of circumstances," Stewart would be allowed to compete in the Chase if he qualifies.

Despite missing the three races, Stewart is still 26th in the drivers' standings, 161 points ahead of 30th-place David Gilliland. With the exception granted and a spot in the top-30 secure, a win would put Stewart in the playoffs.

On Thursday afternoon Stewart-Haas Racing announced that Stewart would make his return to the track this week. Stewart said he couldn't discuss the details of the tragedy out of respect to the still-ongoing investigation. The investigation is now expected to last at least two more weeks.

"Emotionally I'm not sure if I can answer them anyway," Stewart added.

When a reporter asked Frood if Stewart has a clear idea in his mind of what happened on Aug. 9, the executive declined to answer.

But Frood said that Stewart's emotional state will not affect the three-time Sprint Cup champion's performance this weekend. Stewart will practice in the car this afternoon and qualify for Sunday's race tonight.

"Tony Stewart is a racecar driver. He's been a racecar driver for the past 35 years," Frood said. "When he puts that helmet on in practice, I'm quite convinced he'll be ready to race the car, he'll be able to separate the two."

Stewart, 43, has received overwhelming support from his fellow Sprint Cup drivers. Earlier this week in an interview with the NBCSports.com MotorSportsTalk blog, teammate Kevin Harvick criticized media members who do not normally cover NASCAR for their handling of the coverage.

Stewart's Canandaigua incident was his second in as many years. He apologized for causing a multi-car wreck there in July 2013 that injured then-19-year-old driver Alysha Ruggles.

Stewart broke both bones the following month in a Sprint car event at Southern Iowa Speedway and missed the final 15 races of the 2013 Sprint Cup season.

In Stewart's 42 combined Sprint Cup races in 2013 and '14 -- 21 each -- he has one win, seven top-five finishes and 14 top-10s.

The victory came at Dover in June 2013, extending to 15 years his streak of winning at least one race in every season he has competed in Sprint Cup.

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