HAMPTON, Ga. -- Tony Stewart will never get over this. Through it? Maybe. But not over it. That was clear Friday in his words and in his tone.
"This is something that will definitely affect my life forever," he said in the most mournful voice I have heard speaking before media, in person. "This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life."
The less than perfect wording was evidence of what his chief publicist, Mike Arning, had said earlier: that this statement was Tony's own. That he "put pen to paper" himself, even though Arning and staff are as good at wording as any media relations people in NASCAR.
It could have sounded more polished, perhaps. But not more sincere.
The man is still hurting -- badly. We don't know what he's been like, in seclusion, these three weeks since his sprint car struck and killed 20-year-old driver Kevin Ward Jr., who was on foot, at a dirt track in upstate New York.
But when he broke the seclusion before going out to practice on Atlanta Motor Speedway, his first time in a race car since the tragedy, it was evident that the monsoon of sadness has not ended. He is a man whose life is bent over, bowed, still overwhelmed.
"Tony's statement that he read was evidence of how overwhelming these circumstances have been," NASCAR president Mike Helton said in reinstating Stewart for Sunday's race after he'd sat out three.
Helton also declared Stewart eligible for this year's Chase "if he were to earn a spot in it." The driver points earned by Regan Smith and Jeff Burton while substituting for Stewart will not count for him. But Stewart stands 26th in points on his own, within the top 30 as Chase criteria require, so he could make the playoffs with a win Sunday or at Richmond next week.
"This has been a very unique set of circumstances to Tony and to our sport," Helton said in explaining how NASCAR exercised the "except in rare instances" exception to its mandate that drivers participate routinely during the season to be eligible for the Chase.
You can't argue with the uniqueness. It just hasn't happened before. Drivers have come back and raced after being involved in fatalities of other drivers before. But they were always in cars. No one had died on foot.
Never has a NASCAR driver had a burden quite like this to bear. The terrible nature of what the Ward family is suffering is unimaginable.
"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," Stewart said. He named every member of the immediate family and said he wants them to know that "every day I'm thinking about them and praying for them."
As for Helton's perceived evidence of the overwhelming, it seems appropriate here to print the transcript of Stewart's statement as I heard it live, sitting maybe 20 feet from him. Likely, you've heard it on broadcast sound bites or read the transcripts somewhere. But I'd just like to point out the pauses, the sighs, the breaks in his voice that you might not have noticed.
From the second he began until the moment he concluded and left, it took two minutes, 27 seconds. Here's the way it really sounded, and I mark the inflections and pauses. But throughout, whatever else, the tone was consistently mournful and terribly subdued.