NASCAR superstar Tony Stewart says that the death of Kevin Ward Jr. will “affect my life forever” as he returned to the track for the first time since his car struck and killed the fellow driver during a sprint-car race in New York three weeks ago.
“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.”
Stewart said he could not answer questions about the incident – it remains under police investigation – and he left the news conference after reading a short statement.
Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood said it was “100 per cent” Stewart’s decision to race and that his 43-year-old driver was “emotional” but ready to go on Sunday night in Atlanta.
The three-time NASCAR champion has not raced since his car hit Ward at an August 9 sprint car event in upstate New York.
Stewart pulled out of the race at Watkins Glen the next morning, then skipped races at Michigan and Bristol Motor Speedway.
Stewart, who was described by police as “visibly shaken” the night of Ward’s death, has been in seclusion ever since.
Stewart’s only comment since the crash was a statement the day after the crash in which he said “there aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.”
Ward had climbed from his car after it had spun while racing for position with Stewart.
The 20-year-old walked down onto the racing surface waving his arms in an apparent attempt to confront Stewart.
Authorities said the first car to pass Ward had to swerve to miss hitting him. The front of Stewart’s car then appeared to clear Ward, but Ward was struck by the right rear tyre and hurtled through the air, dying of blunt force trauma.
Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero has said investigators did not have any evidence to support criminal intent by Stewart, though the investigation is still ongoing.
Meanwhile, the NASCAR superstar will move forward with his career and attempt to salvage his season.
NASCAR released a statement saying that Stewart was eligible to return because he “has received all necessary clearances required to return to all racing activities.”
Since Ward’s death, NASCAR has announced a rule that prohibits drivers from exiting from a crashed or disabled vehicle – unless it is on fire – until safety personnel arrive.