Tony Stewart has spoken of his emotions over the last three weeks since he was involved in the regional racing accident at New York State's Canandaigua Motorsports Park that claimed the life of fellow competitor Kevin Ward Jr.

Making his first public appearance since the accident, Stewart attended a press conference at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Friday afternoon ahead of this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race which will be his first time back in the race car since the accident. He read out a pre-prepared statement but did not take questions from the floor.

"This has been one of the toughest tragedies I've ever had to deal with both professionally and personally," he began. "This is something that will definitely affect my life forever. This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life.

"With that being said, I know that the pain and the mourning that Kevin Ward's family and friends are experiencing is something that I can't possibly imagine," he continued. "I want Kevin's father, Kevin Sr., and his mother Pam, and his sisters Christi, Kayla, Katelyn, to know that every day I'm thinking about them and praying for them.

"The racing community is a large family, as you guys know. Everyone's saddened with this tragedy.

"I want to thank all my friends and family for their support through this tough emotional time, and the support from the NASCAR community, my partners, all of our employees, it's been overwhelming," said Stewart. "I've taken the last couple weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family, and also to cope with the accident in my own way. It's given me the time to think about life and how easy it is to take it for granted.

"I miss my team, my teammates. I miss being back in the racecar. I think being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time," he explained.

"I also understand that all of you have many questions and want a lot of answers, however I need to respect the ongoing investigation process and cannot answer and address the questions at this time. Emotionally I'm not sure if I could answer them anyway.

"We're here to race this weekend, and I appreciate your respect," he concluded. "There will be a day when I can sit here and answer the questions," he added, referring to the ongoing official investigation into Ward's death by local authorities.

Ontario County (NY) Sheriff Phillip Povero said on Friday that the process is expected to take at least two more weeks.

Once Stewart had left, executive vice president of StewartHaas Racing Brett Frood fielded questions from the assembled journalists.

"I think for Tony, it's all about this healing process, that's part of why he's in the car," Frood explained of Stewart's decision to return to racing this weekend. "It's part of the healing process of being with his family that he's been with since 1999, knowing that these people are going to help him get through this. I think that's one side of it.

"The other side of it is he's a racer. We have 270 employees. I think him putting a helmet on will help him cope with this situation," he added.

"There's been a great deal of empathy and sympathy for [the Ward] family and what they're going through," he said. "For Tony, it's just been extremely emotional. This is what is going to help him."

"I think it's going to be very overwhelming being in that garage today. He's going to feel an awful lot of support. As I just mentioned, this is his family. It's the crew members, it's the officials, it's the drivers. It's his family that he's been with since 1999. This is going to be part of that process for him.

"That being said, Tony Stewart is a race car driver," Frood pointed out. "He's been a race car driver for the past 35 years. When he puts that helmet on in practice, I'm quite convinced he'll be ready to race the car, he'll be able to separate the two."

In a separate new conference, NASCAR confirmed that should Stewart win either this weekend's race at Atlanta, or next week's event at Richmond, he would be considered eligible for the Chase play-offs that will decide this year's Cup champion.

Normally a driver has to attempt to qualify or race in all 26 of the races leading up to the Chase cut-off to maintain their eligibility, but the sanctioning body has decided that in this case the extraordinary situation surrounding Stewart's absence at Michigan and Britol where he was deputised by Jeff Burton required a softening of the rules.

"This has been a very unique set of circumstances to Tony and to our sport," said NASCAR president Mike Helton. "As the league, it's our responsibility to try and make decisions that are correct and right. Sometimes we evaluate circumstances that are given to us and then we make those decisions as correctly as we can.

"After evaluating the circumstances around this occurrence, we've come to the conclusion that Tony would be eligible to participate in the Chase if he were to earn a spot in it."