Tony Stewart took his seat on the podium – unshaven, his eyes glassy – and unfolded a sheet of paper. His voice quivered as he read, pausing to maintain his composure as he described the death of a driver he hit as “one of the toughest tragedies I’ve ever had to deal with.”
This was a far cry from the brash driver known around the track as “Smoke.”
Ninety minutes later, he climbed into his No. 14 car and sped toward the high-banked oval at Atlanta Motor Speedway, drawing a cheer from the crowd gathered around his garage. Describing himself as heartbroken but eager to heal, Stewart rejoined the race for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship surrounded by those he considers a second family – his team, his crew, his rivals. He missed the last three races, going into seclusion after the sprint car he was driving struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr., who had stepped on the track to confront him during a race.
“This is something that will definitely affect my life forever,” Stewart said. “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.”
He 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.”
Kevin Harvick won the pole for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Harvick turned a fast lap of 29.118 seconds Friday night, as drivers sought track time with cooler temperatures for better grip. Brad Keselowski will join Harvick on the front row after qualifying second. Rounding out the top five were Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth. Tony Stewart qualified 12th.
Will Power struggled in qualifying for the final race of the IndyCar season, leaving the series leader starting in 21st place when he chases his first championship.
Power had the second-worst performance in qualifying, while Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves won the pole for this morning’s race. Castroneves turned a lap with an average speed of 218.540 mph.