Kevin Harvick will be on the pole, but Tony Stewart, who'll start 12th, will be in the spotlight in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Stewart is competing for the first time since the sprint car he was driving struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. in an Aug. 9 race at a dirt track in upstate New York.

Points leader Jeff Gordon was impressed when Stewart ran close to 190 mph in practice Friday at the 1.54-mile tri-oval. Stewart was a bit slower in qualifying at 187.907 that night.

Gordon and other drivers said the return to racing will provide therapy for Stewart, who was visibly emotional as he read a prepared statement Friday.

"The best thing for him is to be in that race car," Gordon said.

Said Harvick, Stewart's teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing: "Being in that car cures a lot of problems for a short time."

In his prepared statement, Stewart said he skipped the last three races "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," Stewart said. "I missed my team, my teammates and missed being back in the race car. I think that being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time."


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Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, one of Stewart's primary sponsors, released a statement Saturday expressing support for Stewart in his return. Morris said he met with Stewart last week.

"It made my heart ache to see him so devastated by this incident," said Morris, who described Stewart as "one of the most compassionate and kind-hearted individuals I have ever met."

Sunday's race is the next-to-last before the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Stewart can make the 16-car Chase field with a win Sunday or next week at Richmond, thanks to a waiver announced by NASCAR on Friday. NASCAR requires its drivers to compete in every event to make the playoff, but Stewart received the waiver that is normally applied to a driver who misses a race for medical reasons.

Gordon and other drivers supported the decision to grant Stewart the waiver.

"The whole intent of eligibility for the Chase is just so that somebody doesn't go just take a vacation after winning a few races," Gordon said.

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