HAMPTON, Ga. -- Unshaven and with a quivering voice, NASCAR star Tony Stewart said the death of Kevin Ward Jr. will "affect my life forever" as he returned to the track Friday for the first time since his sprint car struck and killed the fellow driver during a dirt-track race in upstate New York three weeks ago.

Stewart read from a statement that Stewart-Haas Racing said he wrote himself. He spoke just under 21/2 minutes but took no questions about the incident that it still being investigated by law enforcement officials.

"This has been one of the toughest tragedies I've ever had to deal with, personally and professionally," Stewart said at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one has to experience in their life. That being said, I know that the pain and mourning that Kevin Ward's family and friends are experiencing is something that I can't possibly imagine."

Stewart mentioned Ward's parents and three sisters by name, saying he wanted them "to know that every day I'm thinking about them and praying for them."

Stewart skipped three Sprint Cup races following Ward's death, going into seclusion.


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On Aug. 9, Stewart and Ward bumped while racing, sending Ward's car spinning. Ward, 20, climbed from his wrecked sprint car and wandered onto the darkened track in a black racing suit, apparently wanting to make his displeasure known to the three-time NASCAR champion. One car appeared to swerve to avoid Ward, but he was struck by the right rear tire of Stewart's car.

"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. "I miss my team, my teammates and I miss being back in the race car."

Stewart was back at the 1.54-mile tri-oval Friday evening, qualifying 12th with a lap of 187.907 mph. Teammate Kevin Harvick captured the pole for Sunday's race at 190.398 mph.

NASCAR announced Stewart would be eligible for the Chase for the Cup playoff if he wins the Atlanta race or next week at Richmond, the final event before the 16-driver Chase field is set.