ATLANTA (AP) — -

Tony Stewart says the death of Kevin Ward Jr. will "affect my life forever" as he returned to the track for the first time since his car struck and killed the fellow driver during a sprint-car race in New York.

Stewart spoke Friday for the first time Ward died at an Aug. 9 dirt-track event in upstate New York.

The three-time NASCAR champion has not raced since Ward's death. Stewart will race in Atlanta on Sunday night for the first time in three weeks. He says he took time out of respect for Ward's family — and so he could cope with the tragedy.

Speaking quietly, Stewart says he could not answer questions about the incident and he left after reading a short statement.

NASCAR says Stewart will be allowed to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship if he qualifies despite missing three races following the death of a sprint car driver at a New York track.

NASCAR President Mike Helton said Friday that Stewart would need to win at Atlanta on Sunday night or at the regular-season finale next week in Richmond to lock up a spot in the championship.