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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Power, Newgarden, Dixon fastest in first of 2 IndyCar practices today at Barber Motorsports Park

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Will Power was fastest in Friday’s first of two IndyCar practice sessions at Barber Motorsports Park.

Power covered the 2.3-mile permanent road course in 1:07.5987 minutes at 122.488 mph in the 45-minute practice session.

Even though he spun off the course during his session, Phoenix winner Josef Newgarden still managed to be second-fastest (121.919 mph at 1:07.9141 minutes), followed by Scott Dixon (121.296 mph/1:082627), Max Chilton (121.251 mph/1:08.2882) and Ed Jones (121.215 mph/1:09.5692).

 

Sixth through 10th were Simon Pagenaud (121.208 mph/1:08.3122), Jordan King (121.113 mph/1:083661), Graham Rahal (121.059 mph/1:08.3964), St. Petersburg winner Sebastien Bourdais (121.029 mph/1:08.4131) and rookie Zach Veach (121.014 mph/1:08.4216).

Here’s the full speed chart:

Incidents:

* Early in the session, Long Beach winner Alexander Rossi ran off the track and into the grass, striking a small sign, but was able to get back on-track. However, Rossi was only able to complete 10 laps, relegating him to 20th-fastest in the 23-car field.

* Moments later, it appeared the rear brakes locked up on Newgarden heading into Turn 5, spinning him into the gravel trap. He was able to get going and returned to the pits for service and was back on-track with less than four minutes remaining in the session.

ALSO OF NOTE:

* The second practice session of the day will begin at 3:50 p.m. ET. A third practice will take part Saturday morning at 10:50 a.m. ET, followed by qualifying beginning at 4:05 p.m. ET. The race, to be televised live Sunday on NBCSN, is slated to start at 3:30 p.m. ET.

* However, weather forecast does not look promising for Sunday’s race. As of 1 p.m. ET today, the forecast calls for 100 percent rain throughout the day.

* Dixon has had an incredible record at Barber Motorsports Park, with seven podium finishes in eight starts there. Except for one thing: he has yet to win a race there. But he does have five runner-up and two other third-place showings on the permanent road course.

Follow @JerryBonkowski