- Associated Press - Saturday, August 30, 2014

HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) - 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 in 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.”

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