Tony Stewart speaks publicly for first time since killing Kevin Ward Jr.

For the first time since hitting and killing Kevin Ward Jr. during a dirt track race in upstate New York almost three weeks ago, Tony Stewart spoke publicly about the incident ahead of his return to the track for Sunday's Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Stewart's statement lasted less than three minutes and the NASCAR champion did not take questions.

"This is something that will affect my life forever," a despondent Stewart said, before addressing the Ward family and saying that he's praying for them. "This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one has to experience in their life."

Stewart has missed the past three Sprint Cup races and said he took the last few weeks off out of respect for the Ward family and to cope with the tragedy. 

"Being in the car with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time," Stewart said.

Earlier Friday, Kevin Harvick spoke in support of Stewart's return to the track.

"I think everybody has obviously been concerned and wants to support Tony in every way possible," Harvick said, according to USA Today. "Everybody has waited to see when this day would be. Obviously, Tony knew when it was time for him to come back to the racetrack and be a part of getting in the car again. We'll support him and hopefully get him running again and have a good weekend.

"I'm least concerned about the racing side of it. I know for him that will be great medicine to have some type of normal activity in his life again that he hasn't been able to have. But, from a personal standpoint, I'm glad to see my friend and be able to talk to him and be able to support him through probably what will be the hardest situation he's had to go through in his whole life. That to me is the most important thing."

Police investigators in New York state say that the investigation into Ward's death is ongoing, and they don't expect an update in the near future. Because of this, Stewart said he could not speak specifically to the incident.

"I'm here to race this weekend," he said. "I appreciate your respect. There will be a day when I can answer questions."

tony stewart
Tony Stewart delivered a brief statement Friday. (Getty Images)
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