Hampton, Ga. — Tony Stewart was cheered in practice Saturday.
Jeff Gordon and other drivers wouldn’t be surprised if Stewart hears bigger cheers Sunday night.
Kevin Harvick will be on the pole, but Stewart, who will start 12th, will be in the spotlight in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Stewart is competing for the first time 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.
Gordon was impressed when Stewart ran close to 190 mph in practice on Friday. Stewart was a bit slower in qualifying at 187.907 and again Saturday, when he posted the 18th-fastest time at 184.806.
Still, Gordon said Friday that Stewart “may make quite a return.”
Gordon and other drivers said the return to racing will provide therapy for Stewart, who was visibly emotional, with his voice breaking, as he read a prepared statement on Friday.
“I do think that the best thing for him is to be in that race car,” Gordon said.
Said Harvick, Stewart’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing: “Being in that car cures a lot of problems for a short time.”
Harvick warmed up for the Sprint Cup race by winning Saturday night’s Nationwide Series event, leading the final 159 laps.
In his prepared statement, Stewart said he skipped the last three races “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,” Stewart said. “I missed my team, my teammates and missed being back in the race car. I think that being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Saturday he tried to reach out to Stewart but was unsuccessful.
“Tony has sort of been underground and not really having communication with anyone,” Earnhardt said.
“I’m glad he’s back. It was fun seeing him out there in the car in practice. I just can’t imagine what that situation must be like. … It’s a hard situation for everybody, the whole sport.”
Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, one of Stewart’s primary sponsors, released a statement Saturday expressing support for Stewart in his return. Morris said he met with Stewart last week.
“It made my heart ache to see him so devastated by this incident,” said Morris, who described Stewart as “one of the most compassionate and kindhearted individuals I have ever met.”
Brad Keselowski will start beside Harvick on the front row.
It is the next-to-last race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Stewart can make the 16-car Chase field with a win Sunday night or next week at Richmond, thanks to a waiver announced by NASCAR on Friday. NASCAR requires its drivers to compete in every event to make the playoff, but Stewart received the waiver that is normally applied to a driver who misses a race for medical reasons.
Gordon, the points leader, and other drivers supported the decision to grant Stewart the waiver.
“I think the whole intent of eligibility for the Chase is just so that somebody doesn’t go just take a vacation after winning a few races,” Gordon said. “That’s the way I look at it. It’s not for unforeseen circumstances or medical or anything like that to prevent you from going out and competing in the Chase.
“They want the teams and the drivers that have earned their way in it and deserve to be in it and I believe if they win a race they should be in it.”
The new Chase format places an emphasis on wins. Drivers who don’t have a win must nervously watch the points standings for the final spots in the Chase field.
The format could force some drivers to adapt an all-or-nothing strategy for the final two races before the Chase.
“There are two races left and it’s going to be a battle,” said Brian Vickers, who is 19th in points and seeking his first win of the year. “It’s going to be intense these next two races, knowing it’s not just about the guys on the cusp of the points. It’s anybody who can win.”
Matt Kenseth, who was fifth in qualifying, is in the best position of those still trying to lock up a spot in the Chase. He will be locked in by finishing seventh or better, regardless of who wins the race.
Gordon is reaching a milestone with his 750th career race. It’s an appropriate setting for Gordon, who made his debut in Atlanta in the final race of the 1992 season.
“It just seems like it was just yesterday it started right here,” Gordon said. “I love this track. I love racing here. So it’s pretty cool to have 750 happening here.”