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Tony Stewart: ‘This is a sadness and pain that I hope no one has to experience in their life’

Aug 29, 2014, 1:37 PM EDT

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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