STEWART'S RETURN - Tony Stewart addressed a full media center Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the first time he has spoken publicly since the tragic death Aug. 9 of Kevin Ward Jr. at a dirt track in upstate New York.

Reading a statement he prepared himself, Stewart acknowledged how difficult the last few weeks had been for him.

"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 definitely affect my life forever," Stewart said. "This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life. That being said, I know that the pain that Kevin Ward's family and friends are experiencing is something that I can't possibly imagine.

"I think being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time. I also understand all of you have many questions, and you don't have a lot of answers. But I need to respect the ongoing investigation process, and I cannot answer your questions at this time. Emotionally I'm not sure if I could answer them anyway."

After reading his statement, Stewart slipped out of his seat at the front table and left Stewart-Haas Racing Executive Vice President Brett Frood to take questions from the media.

"It's been a difficult two weeks, but Tony is ready to be in the race car," Frood said. "He wouldn't be here if he wasn't."

Following Stewart's press conference, NASCAR President Mike Helton addressed the media regarding the former champion's return to the track. NASCAR medically cleared Stewart Thursday to race this weekend, and Helton addressed the possible Chase for the Sprint Cup championship implications during Friday's press conference.

"After evaluating the circumstances around this occurrence, we've come to the conclusion that Tony would be eligible to participate in the Chase if he were to earn a spot in it," Helton said, noting the asterisk that allows for changes "in rare instances."

Helton said at this point NASCAR is not currently considering any provision to allow Stewart to be included in the Chase field through any process other than a race win.

TRANSCRIPT OF STEWART STATEMENT - "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 definitely affect my life forever. This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life. That being said, I know that the pain that Kevin Ward's family and friends are experiencing is something that I can't possibly imagine. I want Kevin's father, Kevin Sr., his mother Pam, his sisters to know that every day I'm thinking about them and praying for them. The racing community is a large family, as you know, and everyone is sad with this tragedy. I want to thank all my friends and family for their support during this tough time, and the support from the NASCAR community. I've taken the last couple weeks off 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. I miss my team, my teammates, and I miss being back in the race car. I think being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time. I also understand all of you have many questions, and you don't have a lot of answers. But I need to respect the ongoing investigation process, and I cannot answer your questions at this time. Emotionally I'm not sure if I could answer them anyway. I'm here to race this weekend, and I appreciate your respect. There will be a day when I can sit here and answer your questions. Thank you.

ICE BUCKET CHALLENGE - Atlanta Motor Speedway officials invite fans to witness or take part in one of the world's largest ice bucket challenges Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Fan Zone. Fans can help begin to fill buckets, provided by Lowe's, with ice and water beginning at 1:15 p.m.

ORAL-B 500 GRAND MARSHAL - Michael Cudlitz, who portrays Sgt. Abraham Ford on the highly popular television series "The Walking Dead," will be the Grand Marshal for Sunday's Oral-B USA 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"The Walking Dead" chronicles a group of survivors in a world overrun by zombies and is filmed in numerous locations around the Atlanta area, including Senoia, which is located less than 20 miles from Atlanta Motor Speedway. The series has been nominated for Golden Globe and Emmy Awards.

DHANI JONES TALKS RACING - Former NFL Football linebacker Dhani Jones was at Atlanta Motor Speedway during Friday's Wind Creek Casino & Hotel Wetumpka Qualifying Night looking for a few old pals.

Now the host of Spike TV's Playbook 360, Jones has befriended several drivers in the Sprint Cup Series garage, including Jimmie Johnson, Brian Vickers, and Austin and Ty Dillon. It's made the sport even more exciting for him to watch.

"We're here talking to some of the fastest drivers anywhere," Jones said. "It's an exciting time to enjoy the fastest sport in the world. I love going fast just like anybody else - of course you've got to do it in a controlled environment. From an athletic standpoint too, they're competitors just like I was when I was in the National Football League."