— -- NASCAR driver Tony Stewart made an emotional return into the spotlight today as he explained that he sees his return to the race track nearly three weeks after fatally hitting another driver as a necessary part of the healing process.
"This has been one of the toughest tragedies that I’ve ever had to deal with... both professional and personally, and this is something that will definitely affect my life forever," Stewart said at a news conference this afternoon.
Stewart hit fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr. when Ward got out of his car during a race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York earlier this month. Footage of the incident appears to show that Ward may have been trying to confront Stewart and he was seen gesturing at Stewarts car just moments before it ran into him.
"This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one has to experience in their life," Stewart said today. "That being said, I know that the pain and the mourning that Kevin Ward’s family and his friends are experiencing, is something I can’t possibly imagine."
"I’ve taken the last couple of weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family and to cope with the accident my own way. It’s given me the time to think about life and how easy it is to take it for granted."
The news conference came ahead of Stewart's return to the racetrack this Sunday as he is scheduled to compete in the ORAL-B USA 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"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 said.
Stewart refused to take questions, saying that he was not emotionally ready at this time, but gave his condolences to each member of Ward's family, listing the 20-year-old's relatives by name in his statement.
In spite of that personal connection, it was confirmed later that Stewart has not spoken to any of Ward's relatives directly. Brett Frood, the executive vice president of Stewart-Haas racing, said after Stewart left the press conference that the driver had sent flowers and a note to Ward's relatives around the time of the memorial services but had not spoken with them.
NASCAR president Mike Helton held a separate press conference an hour later confirming that Stewart's return had been approved following outside testing from a third party group, but he would not explain what kinds of tests he underwent and what company approved the results. Helton said he underwent "the ones that we felt were relevant to these circumstances."
"Drivers' healing processes are unique but they are racecar drivers and a lot of times getting back in the race car is something they shoot to do as quickly as they can," Helton said.
The investigation into the fatal August 9 incident remains open, though no charges have been filed. Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero issued a statement today noting that the investigation will take at least another two weeks to complete.