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Peace can be found in a race car

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Stewart Expresses Sorrow Before Return (3:33)

Ricky Craven discusses Tony Stewart's first news conference since the tragedy that killed Kevin Ward Jr. and Stewart's return to the track. (3:33)

HAMPTON, Ga. -- So what might be going through Tony Stewart's mind as he races Sunday night?

NASCAR president Mike Helton said only that "we cleared him based on ... third-party input from experts," but he wouldn't elaborate on whether those might include psychologists, psychiatrists, ministers, priests, grief counselors -- whatever experts might evaluate a state of mind after three weeks of grief, shock, depression, sadness.

But none of the above probably could tell you what Stewart will be thinking in a 500-mile race around treacherous, abrasive, fast and pass-conducive Atlanta Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN & WatchESPN).

You know who can? His peers. They know the peace, the total focus, the total blockout of all other matters inside a race car.

"Once you get in the car, your mind kind of turns off and you can focus on what you're doing, and how you're making laps," said Stewart's teammate Kevin Harvick, who will start on the pole Sunday night, "and that's really all you think about."

Racing may leave no room in the thought process for the pall on Stewart's life, the death of Kevin Ward Jr. on Aug. 9, after the 20-year-old driver climbed from his sprint car, walked onto that dirt track in upstate New York seeking to confront Stewart, and was struck and killed by Stewart's car.

Stewart has missed three races since, "out of respect for Kevin and his family, and also to cope with the accident in my own way," Stewart said Friday, reading from a prepared statement that was all he has had to say here to the media.

Then he went out and practiced and qualified for the first time since the tragedy. He will start 12th Sunday night.

Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's senior-statesman driver who'll be making his 750th consecutive Cup start Sunday night, searched for an analogy to the total focus driving requires.

"The only thing I know how to compare it is if you've ever played a really intense video game," Gordon said. "When you're doing something that you're so focused on that nothing else is coming into your mind -- nothing else. Even if you're feeling pain. Sometimes you don't even feel pain because the focus is so strong, it's sort of that mind over matter thing. When you're in there doing something that you enjoy doing. It's also very challenging, and so your brain is on full overload of the sensories that come along with driving that race car.

"Especially here at Atlanta," Gordon continued. "This track is challenging, it's abrasive, the tire grip goes away fast, and you're driving that car just about every second. On the straightaways, obviously, you can relax a little bit, but the straightaways go by fast. And these are big corners, and you've got your hands full all the way through the corners.

"Once you get into that car, you're not thinking of anything else other than driving that car.

"And sometimes," Gordon continued, "we all need something like that in life that puts us into that mode. I'm not a big video game player, but when I do play video games, most of the time it's just to get my mind off of other things."

"There's just something about being in there," Harvick said, "and being in that zone and not having to listen to anybody else. The only people that are talking to you are talking about racing, and how your car is handling, and you get inside this zone where you stay focused, and you don't have to think about anything else.

"It is therapeutic," Harvick continued. "It's relaxing, and it's what you know. It's what he knows. And to be inside that car cures a lot of problems for a short time."

A short time only.

The sheriff's department investigation of the tragedy in Ontario County, New York, will continue for at least two more weeks, according to a statement by the sheriff Friday.

A sprint-car racing family still grieves unimaginably. Stewart already knows, and he has said that this "will affect my life forever."

But maybe, for a few hours, after he hits the toggle switches at the command to start engines, Stewart can take his mind off the running nightmare from which neither he nor the Ward family will ever really wake up.

NASCAR has declared him eligible to participate in the Chase if he qualifies for it -- meaning he'd have to win here or at Richmond in the final regular-season race next week.

So if he finds himself in position to win here, then all the more overload of focus.

All in all, this may well be the nearest thing to a break his heart and mind have had since Aug. 9.