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Stewart returns to racing but questions remain

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 30, 2014 at 2:52 am •  Published: August 30, 2014
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HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — Tony Stewart was back in his comfort zone, behind the wheel of a race car.

He's still got a shot at another Sprint Cup championship.

Yet plenty of questions remain.

Will he face criminal charges for running over a fellow driver at a sprint-car race in upstate New York? Will the brash racer they call "Smoke" regain the edge that made him a NASCAR superstar, even after conceding he'll be affected the rest of his life by the death of Kevin Ward Jr.?

"This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one has to experience," Stewart said in his return to the track Friday, ending nearly three weeks of seclusion after Ward's life ended under circumstances that are still hotly debated.

During a brief news conference, Stewart read a statement that his team said he wrote himself, his voice quivering and eyes glassy. He declined to take questions, saying he couldn't comment while law enforcement was still investigating and wasn't sure he was up to discussing what happened even if he could.

"This is something that will definitely affect my life forever," Stewart said. "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."

About the time Stewart was speaking, authorities in New York said that their probe into Ward's death will last at least two more weeks. No decision has been made into possible charges.

It was business as usual when Stewart changed into his racing suit. He signed autographs. He talked with his crew about the car's setup. He chatted up Kurt Busch.

In his familiar No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart had no trouble getting up to speed at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He advanced to the final round of qualifying before settling for the 12th starting spot in Sunday night's race with a speed of 187.907 mph. One of his teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing, Kevin Harvick, claimed the pole at 190.398.

Stewart went out ahead of Harvick and advised him to take a lower line on the high-banked track, one of the fastest on the NASCAR circuit.

"He was definitely a big help," Harvick said. Afterward the two chatted briefly, a conversation Harvick described as "all racing."

If Stewart should win in Atlanta, or next week's race at Richmond, he would qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup title. While NASCAR requires its drivers to compete in every event to make the playoff, Stewart was granted a waiver that is normally applied to a driver who misses a race for medical reasons.

Mike Helton, president of the governing body, said NASCAR made the decision after consulting with third-party experts who "were relevant under these circumstances." He would not elaborate.

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