For the first time in over three weeks, Tony Stewart will count on the comfort of routine, returning to the racetrack for the Oral-B USA 500 Sunday night in Atlanta.
As an investigation into the incident in which he struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. in a sprint-car race on a dirt track continues in upstate New York, Stewart will drive the No. 14 car for the first time as he tries to qualify for the Chase. Stewart spoke Friday for the first time, reading a statement about what he has been feeling since he struck and killed Ward on Aug. 9.
Stewart’s situation may be unique, but other drivers empathized with him.
“I think once you get in the car, your mind kind of turns off and you can focus on what you’re doing and how you’re making laps, and that’s really all you think about,” Kevin Harvick, a Stewart-Haas driver who was the pole winner for the Atlanta race, said. “The hardest part is getting out of the car and having to deal with everything else, and your mind wanders. But inside that race car, there is just something about being in there and being in that zone and not having to listen to anybody else.
“The only people that are talking to you are talking about racing and how your car is handling, and you get inside this zone that you stay focused on and you don’t have to think about anything else. It is therapeutic. It’s relaxing and it’s what you know. It’s what he knows and to be inside that car cures a lot of problems for a short time.”
Stewart will start 12th in the race and has won three times in Atlanta.
“Even if you are feeling pain, sometimes you don’t even feel pain because the focus is so strong,” Jeff Gordon said. “To me it’s about once you get into that car you are not thinking of anything else other than driving that car, and sometimes we all need something like that in life that puts us into that mode.”
Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, stands behind the driver his company sponsors, too. “What started as a sponsorship discussion between Tony and I 15 years ago has turned into a long and special friendship,” Morris said in a statement (via ESPN). “It’s a friendship that has given me the opportunity to get to know one of the most compassionate and kind-hearted individuals I have ever met. 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.”
In his only words since the incident, Stewart said Friday:
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.
With 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., and his mother, Pam, and his sisters Christi, Kayla, Katelyn, to know that every day I’m thinking about them and praying for them.
The racing community is a large family, as you guys know. Everyone’s 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, it’s been overwhelming.
I’ve taken the last couple weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family, and also to cope with the accident in my own way. 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. I miss being back in the racecar. I think 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 and address the questions at this time. Emotionally I’m not sure if I could answer them anyway.
We’re here to race this weekend, and I appreciate your respect. There will be a day when I can sit here and answer the questions.