HAMPTON, Ga. – Despite the ongoing investigation into his role in Kevin Ward Jr.'s death, Tony Stewart will race this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway to begin the healing.
Stewart said ''this has been one of the toughest tragedies I've ever had to deal with, both professionally and personally. This will affect my life forever," in his first public remarks Friday as he returned to NASCAR for the first time since Ward Jr. was killed Aug. 9.
"This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one ever has to experience in their life," Stewart said.
Friday's return to the No. 14 Chevrolet and the sport in which Stewart has won three Sprint Cup championships comes after he missed three consecutive races in NASCAR's premier series since Ward Jr.'s death during a sprint car race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York.
Stewart reached out to Kevin Ward Jr.'s family Friday, calling each member by name and said ''I want them to know I'm thinking about them and praying for them," as he read from a statement.
Stewart was dressed in a short-sleeve black shirt and there were no sponsor logos on the dais or table.
Sponsor Mobil 1 has its logos on the No. 14 Chevrolet at Atlanta.
After Stewart's statement, he left the media center without taking questions.
When asked why Stewart had decided to return this weekend, with the investigation still ongoing, Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood said "for Tony, it's all about the healing process. That's why he's in the car."
"I am not going to comment on the incident itself. It was a tragic accident," Frood said.
A spokeswoman for the Ontario County (N.Y.) sheriff's office told USA TODAY Sports on Friday morning just hours before the SHR news conference there was nothing new to report on the status of the investigation, which still is ongoing. She said they didn't expect to announce any news Friday.
Frood continually pointed out that Stewart is a race car driver and has more than 250 employees depending on him as one of the reasons he chose to return.
He said many members of Stewart's family were in attendance at the track this weekend.
Frood said Stewart had ''been very respectful of (the Ward family) and their time to grieve," and said Stewart had sent flowers and a card for the Ward Jr. service. Frood also said he believed Stewart would meet with the Ward Jr. family in time.
There was no word from NASCAR or SHR on whether Stewart had requested a waiver to become eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O'Donnell said in a statement Thursday that Stewart: "has received all the necessary clearances required to return to all racing activities and therefore is eligible to compete this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway."
NASCAR's cutoff for the 10-race Chase is Sept. 6 at Richmond International Raceway. Stewart would need to win this weekend or next week at Richmond and get a waiver from NASCAR to be eligible (drivers must at least attempt to qualify each weekend).
NASCAR implemented a rule formalizing procedure for drivers who are involved in accidents or who are unable to make forward progress in their cars in the wake of the incident, in which Ward exited his race car and was walking down the dirt track under caution when Stewart's car hit him.
Drivers now are required to remain strapped in their cars — unless they are in immediate danger from fire or another hazard — until safety crews arrive and can escort them from the scene. No driver is allowed to walk onto the racing surface.
After SHR vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli said it would be ''business as usual'' at Watkins Glen International the day after the incident, the team quickly reversed course and said Stewart would sit out. Nationwide Series regular Regan Smith filled in for him there.
Stewart, who was described by police at the accident scene as being ''visibly shaken," released a statement that Sunday that read:
"There aren't words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. It's a very emotional time for all involved, and it is the reason I've decided not to participate in today's race at Watkins Glen. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and everyone affected by this tragedy."
Stewart has been in seclusion since the incident.
Burton was behind the wheel of the No. 14 Chevrolet at Michigan and last week at Bristol Motor Speedway, notching finishes of 37th and 15th, respectively.
If Stewart doesn't qualify for the playoffs, this will mark the second year in a row NASCAR will be missing one of its stars during the championship run. Stewart was sidelined for the final 15 races in 2013 after breaking his leg in a sprint car accident. He required three surgeries and months of rehabilitation to be able to get back in a Cup car for this year's Daytona 500 in February.