John Bazemore, Associated Press
HAMPTON, Ga. — Tony Stewart was back in his comfort zone, behind the wheel of a race car.
He's still got a shot at another Sprint Cup championship.
Yet plenty of questions remain.
Will he face criminal charges for running over a fellow driver at a sprint-car race in upstate New York? Will the brash racer they call "Smoke" regain the edge that made him a NASCAR superstar, even after conceding he'll be affected the rest of his life by the death of Kevin Ward Jr.?
"This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one has to experience," Stewart said in his return to the track Friday, ending nearly three weeks of seclusion after Ward's life ended under circumstances that are still hotly debated.
During a brief news conference, Stewart read a statement that his team said he wrote himself, his voice quivering and eyes glassy. He declined to take questions, saying he couldn't comment while law enforcement was still investigating and wasn't sure he was up to discussing what happened even if he could.
"This is something that will definitely affect my life forever," Stewart said. "That being said, I know that the pain and mourning that Kevin Ward's family and friends are experiencing is something that I can't possibly imagine."
About the time Stewart was speaking, authorities in New York said that their probe into Ward's death will last at least two more weeks. No decision has been made into possible charges.
It was business as usual when Stewart changed into his racing suit. He signed autographs. He talked with his crew about the car's setup. He chatted up Kurt Busch.
In his familiar No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart had no trouble getting up to speed at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He advanced to the final round of qualifying before settling for the 12th starting spot in Sunday night's race with a speed of 187.907 mph. One of his teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing, Kevin Harvick, claimed the pole at 190.398.
Stewart went out ahead of Harvick and advised him to take a lower line on the high-banked track, one of the fastest on the NASCAR circuit.
"He was definitely a big help," Harvick said. Afterward the two chatted briefly, a conversation Harvick described as "all racing."
If Stewart should win in Atlanta, or next week's race at Richmond, he would qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup title. While NASCAR requires its drivers to compete in every event to make the playoff, Stewart was granted a waiver that is normally applied to a driver who misses a race for medical reasons.
Mike Helton, president of the governing body, said NASCAR made the decision after consulting with third-party experts who "were relevant under these circumstances." He would not elaborate.
"We want to join everybody in racing in welcoming Tony back," Helton said. "He's a great asset to NASCAR. He's a great champion, a great participant in our sport."
Asked if NASCAR was making the proper decision in giving out a waiver, rival driver Denny Hamlin wavered a bit.
"It's a very vague thing," he said. "It's tough to say what's considered medical and not."
There was no word from Ward's family on Stewart's return. A woman who answered Friday at the home of Kevin Ward Sr. said the family would not be commenting.
During an Aug. 9 sprint-car race Canandaigua, New York, Stewart and Ward bumped while racing into a turn, sending Ward's car spinning. The 20-year-old climbed from his wrecked machine and wandered onto a darkened track in a black racing suit, clearly wanting to make his displeasure known to the three-time NASCAR champion.
One car appeared to swerve to avoid Ward, but he was struck by the back right tire of Stewart's car.
The 43-year-old Stewart pulled out of the race at nearby Watkins Glen the next day, and then skipped events at Michigan and Bristol. His team said he needed time to grieve; some wondered if he was feeling guilty, that perhaps a driver known for his short fuse wanted to frighten a young competitor who had the nerve to call him out over a racing crash.
"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 said. "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, and I think being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time."
He mentioned Ward's parents and three sisters by name, saying he wanted them "to know that every day I'm thinking about them and praying for them."
Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood said the driver sent flowers and a card to Ward's family around the time of the funeral. He hopes to meet with them at some point.
"He's been very respectful of them and their time to grieve," Frood said. "It's important for Tony to spend time with the family. I do think that will happen at the appropriate time."
In the meantime, it's back to racing.
"Being in that car," Harvick said, "cures a lot of problems for a short time."
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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