Tony Stewart: ‘This is a sadness and pain that I hope no one has to experience in their life’

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HAMPTON, Ga. – A visibly somber Tony Stewart, at times bordering on tears, faced the media and the NASCAR world for the first time in nearly three weeks Friday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Stewart has been in seclusion for nearly three weeks since the tragic accident that claimed the life of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. in a sprint car race at a upstate New York dirt track on August 9.

“This has been one of the toughest tragedies I’ve ever had to deal with both professionally and personally, and this is something that will affect my life forever,” Stewart read from a statement he personally wrote.

“This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one has to experience in their life,” he continued. “With that being said, I know the pain and the mourning that Kevin Ward’s family and friends are experiencing is something I can’t possibly imagine.”

Stewart addressed every member of Ward’s immediate family, saying, “I want Kevin’s father, Kevin Sr., and his mother Pam, his sisters Christi, Cavanaugh and Katelyn to know that every day I’m thinking about them and praying for them.”

MORE: Tony Stewart to return to race at Atlanta this weekend

Stewart did not answer questions from the media.

“I also understand that all of you have many questions and you want a lot of answers,” Stewart read from his statement. “However, I need to respect the ongoing investigation process and cannot answer and address the questions at this time. And I’m not sure if I could answer them anyway.”

MORE: Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick glad to see boss, teammate and friend Tony Stewart back in race car

Stewart did not shed any light on what he’s done while being in seclusion, but expressed that after nearly three weeks, being back in the race car is the best thing for him right now.

“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. “It’s given me the time about life and how easy it is to take it for granted. I miss my team, my teammates and I miss being back in the race car. I think being back in the car with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time.”

MORE: Tony Stewart’s return to NASCAR may be one of hardest things he’s ever done

Stewart’s part of the 10-minute press conference lasted just under 2 minutes, 30 seconds, while Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood took approximately a half-dozen questions.

“I’m here to race this weekend and I appreciate your respect and there will be a day when I can sit here and answer the questions,” Stewart concluded.

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Here’s what drivers said after Sunday’s INDYCAR race was postponed until Monday

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Here’s what several drenched drivers had to say after Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was postponed until Monday morning (11:30 a.m. ET, LIVE on NBCSN):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2018 pole winner): “It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us. We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much. There was too much puddling and pooling of water on every straightaway. Then the rivers started flowing, high-speed compressions in Turns 1 and 2, fast corner, 12 and 13, fast corner where the river starts to form. Just tough. I mean, look, we love racing in the rain. It’s got nothing to do with not wanting to run in the rain, not being able to do that. It’s that this type of track with this water level was too much to race today. We’ve run here in the rain before, but it intensified to the point where you’re starting to get in a situation where it’s going to take it out of the drivers’ hands. What happened with Will (Power), I don’t think is a driver error. I don’t know how anyone is going to drive hydroplaning on the front straightaway. I think you would have had that for the rest of the track, too. A tough situation. Thanks for the fans that came out and supported us. Hopefully we’ll get some people back tomorrow and we’ll get the show in and put on a great event.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet):
“Tough day so far. We had some problems with our radio and fuel alarm, but otherwise the car was alright. It was just too dangerous out there, we couldn’t see anything, so I think they made the right call. Hopefully we’ll have a good race tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s just a real shame for everyone on the Verizon Chevy team. The car was good and we were doing our best out there, but it was really hard to see anything in front of me. The conditions were just so bad. As soon as I got to the frontstraight, the car just came around, and I tried to keep it off the wall, but it was hydroplaning and there was nothing I could do. I feel bad for the team and for the fans in this weather. Just too bad. Hopefully our luck can turn around when we get to Indianapolis.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Very difficult day for us. In the race we were 13th at the time and we had some electrical issues, so that caused us to pit and we lost a lap. Not the ideal situation, but we don’t give up. There’s still a race tomorrow and we’re going to go for the most points. Anything can happen.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue today, no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in today, but that’s life. We will go racing tomorrow.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “I think definitely the right decision was made to red flag the race. It’s a very difficult position for everyone to be in. It’s never the result that you want, but safety is obviously a priority. I think everyone did a good job considering the conditions of looking out for each other. Not being able to see is not doing anybody any good. It is hard for everyone, but glad that we’re all in one piece and try again later.

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “As you could see on TV, if you couldn’t see the car, it was probably three times worse in the cockpit on the main straight or any straight. You had to completely trust the guys that they were accelerating. Never the less, I made good progress on the short stint and I made up a few positions.  The car was working well, but also was aquaplaning a lot, too, so I have to respect INDYCAR’s decision for everyone’s safety. Now we really need to concentrate on having a good car for tomorrow. I’m sorry for the fans that sat in rain all day, but thank them for their support.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “It was a short day. In the beginning the conditions were not that good, but afterwards the conditions started to improve. The race was stopped, then restarted, and I think the conditions were not too bad at that point. Unfortunately, it was red flagged again and then cancelled for the day. It would have been nice to get halfway, but we will come back and try again tomorrow.”