Atlanta (AFP) - Tony Stewart, who fatally struck a rival driver in a race three weeks ago, said Friday he will return to US stock car racing Sunday to help cope with the tragedy.
"This has been one of the toughest tragedies I have ever had to deal with," Stewart said. "This is a tragedy that will affect my life forever.
"This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one has to experience in their life."
The 43-year-old US racer and team co-owner, a star in the closed-cockpit series that ranks as America's most popular form of auto racing, can qualify for the season-ending Chase for the Championship in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) if he wins this weekend or next.
Stewart skipped races at Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol after his role in the fatal accident that killed fellow racer Kevin Ward Jnr in a lower-level dirt track event at Canandaigua Motorsports Park oval on August 9 -- an incident still under investigation by police.
"I've taken the time out of respect for Kevin Ward's family... and also to deal with the accident in my own way," Stewart said. "It has given me time to think about life and how we take it for granted.
"Getting back in the car this weekend with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time."
Skipping even one race would prevent drivers from being eligible for the championship under NASCAR rules, but series president Mike Helton said Friday a waiver to that regulation has been granted given the situation.
"This has been a very unique set of circumstances around Tony," Helton said. "After evaluating the circumstances, we've come to the conclusion Tony would be eligible for the Chase if he were to earn a spot in it."
Stewart -- NASCAR's 2002, 2005 and 2011 season champion -- returns at the 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway oval. He has not raced since August 3 at the Pocono Raceway tri-oval.
Stewart read a prepared statement and departed without taking questions from reporters, saying it was because of the ongoing police investigation into the incident but adding, "Emotionally I'm not sure I can answer them at this time anyway."
Police in New York state said Friday it will be at least another two weeks before the investigation is concluded.
In the incident, the cars of Stewart and Ward made contact battling for position with Ward's vehicle spinning out and hitting the wall. A caution flag slowed the cars as they continued around the oval.
Ward exited his car and walked down the track to yell and wave his finger at Stewart. The right rear of Stewart's car struck Ward and briefly dragged him along the track.
Helton said NASCAR relied on "third-party experts" to judge that Stewart was ready to race again, but refused to say they made evaluations of grief-stricken Stewart's mental state.
"When it comes to the assurances a NASCAR member is ready to return, we are going to rely on outside experts," Helton said.
"Driver's healing processes are unique but they are race car drivers and getting back in the car is something they work to do as quick as possible."