Tony Stewart was back in the driver's seat Sunday at a Sprint Cup qualifier in Atlanta, despite the continuing fallout over his role in the death of fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr., three weeks ago.
With just a few hours left before the Oral-B 500 race, emotional fans lined up for autographs with Tony Stewart's pit crew. They were checking equipment they'll used on his car, number 14. It's the same car he drove Saturday and reached speeds of 184 miles per hour.
Stewart's practice rounds marked the first time he'd been on a racetrack since the sprint car he was driving struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. in an Aug. 9 race at a dirt track in upstate New York.
"From a mental standpoint, some people would say, 'Man, how could he put on a helmet and race a care at 200 miles an hour?' " said Bob Pockrass, a NASCAR writer for Sporting News Media. "But drivers have the ability to put things out of their mind when they race."
On Friday, Stewart gave a two-and-a-half-minute statement, the first time he'd spoken publicly since Ward was killed.
"I miss my team, my teammates," Stewart said. "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."
Officers say the investigation into Ward's death will continue for at least another two weeks. inside the track at Atlanta Motor Speedway, fans like Brian Turner were showing their support for Tony Stewart.
"I drive a tractor-trailer," said Turner. "I've been driving for a living, I've seen a lot. I've been driving for 20 something years and I've seen a lot happen. And I know he didn't do it on purpose. He's a professional, he's not going to do it on purpose."
When Stewart practiced yesterday, fans applauded. And when Stewart gets behind the wheel Sunday, it will be one of the most watched races of his career.
"He's used to being under pressure but this is different this time," said Pockrass. "What happens if he gets into a wreck tonight? What happens if he is challenging for the win? How will people react? How will people race him? And how will people perceive what he does and his actions on the track tonight?"