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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March 28 in Motorsports History: Adrian Fernandez wins Motegi’s first race

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While auto racing is an international sport, oval racing remains uniquely American. 

That almost always has remained the case since the inception of the sport, but in 1998, the citizens of Japan got their first taste of American oval racing.

Having opened the previous year, Twin Ring Motegi was built by Honda in an effort to bring Indy-style racing to the Land of the Rising Sun. 

Adrian Fernandez was the first driver to win at the facility, taking the checkered flag in CART’s inaugural race after shaking off flu earlier that day.

Fernandez held off a hard-charging Al Unser Jr to win by 1.086 seconds. The victory was the second of his career and his first since Toronto in 1996.

Adrian Fernandez celebrates with Al Unser Jr and Gil de Ferran after winning the inaugural race at Motegi. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

The race was also memorable for a violent crash involving Bobby Rahal.

Running third with 15 laps remaining, Rahal’s right front suspension broke in Turn 2, causing his car to hit the outside wall and flip down the backstretch.

Luckily, Rahal walked away from the accident without a scratch.

“The car was on rails through (turns) 1 and 2, and all of a sudden it just got up into the marbles, and it was gone,” Rahal said. “Thank God we’ve got such safe cars.”

The following season, Fernadez went back-to-back and won again at Motegi. The track remained on the CART schedule until 2002.

In 2003, Honda switched their alliance to the Indy Racing Leauge, and Motegi followed suit.

The track continued to host IndyCar racing until 2011 with the final race being held on the facility’s 2.98-mile road course, as the oval sustained damage in the Tōhoku earthquake earlier that year.

Also on this date:

1976: Clay Regazzoni won the United States Grand Prix – West, Formula One’s first race on the Long Beach street circuit. The Grand Prix would become an IndyCar event following the 1983 edition of the race.

1993: Ayrton Senna won his home race, the Grand Prix of Brazil, for the second and final time of his career. The victory was also the 100th in F1 for McLaren.

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