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DOVER, Del. (AP) — Tony Stewart's walk back to his motorhome was halted by a pair of old friends. Two longtime NASCAR participants stopped Stewart not far from his car for a lengthy chat in the Dover garage.
His firesuit stripped down to his waist, a freshly shaven Stewart smiled and laughed as the trio caught up shortly after the first Sprint Cup practice on Friday.
Kenny Wallace, a close friend and TV analyst, put his hand on Stewart's right shoulder as they spoke and gave him a big hug when they finished.
Stewart's loyal friends have stood by his side in his toughest time.
So have the fans who roar for him during driver introductions and crowd his car, snapping pictures and shouting for autographs.
They've all stuck up for Smoke — and empathized with him in the bleakest moments following the fatal sprint car crash that killed Kevin Ward Jr.
"There is sort of a sickness or something in the pit of your stomach for what Tony is going through," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday.
Stewart seemed in good spirits at Dover International Speedway in his first race weekend since a grand jury decided he would not be charged in Ward's death.
"I'm sure there's some type of relief that it's kind of done," six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said.
There could be some legal woes ahead. Ward's family has said "the matter is not at rest," and Stewart may still face a civil lawsuit.
For Stewart, the driver who inspired the #StandWithSmoke movement on Twitter, the support has been appreciated, if not totally unexpected, from a racing community that always cares for its own.
"Racers have always taken care of racers," Stewart told AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer in his first interview since the crash. "You don't have to know 'em for him to be a part of your family. That's what's so different about what we do versus other sports. It's just always been that way. But the support from the NASCAR community, the sprint car community, the racing community in general, has just been overwhelming."
And not just for Stewart, but Ward's family, as well. In Stewart's brief statement in his return at Atlanta Motor Speedway in late August, he mentioned Ward's parents and three sisters by name, saying he wanted them "to know that every day I'm thinking about them and praying for them."
Johnson and Earnhardt, two of NASCAR's biggest stars, both made mention of thinking of Ward and his family when they answered questions Friday.
"I feel sadness in my heart for the Ward family," said Earnhardt, whose father, Dale, was killed on the track in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Stewart has continued on as a fan favorite and stops to sign for fans on an autograph hunt in the garage.
He received a big cheer from the crowd when he was introduced in Atlanta. Many fans wrote notes of encouragement on the pavement at the entrance to his garage stall.
"Welcome back Tony."
"Go Get Em Smoke."
Stewart can't forget how the fans welcomed him back with open arms.
"It was one of the most flattering, if not the most flattering experience I've had in my life," he told the AP. "As much support as I got from the racing community, it showed me how much deeper it actually went. Through this whole thing, you get online and you read posts and you read blogs and you sit there and see people who are Jeff Gordon fans, or Jimmie Johnson fans or Carl Edwards fans, whoever, and read comments that do not like me but understand and it's not just been ... it's people who don't like me and don't pull for me racing, but were sympathetic of the situation."
Ward and Stewart had been racing for position when Ward crashed, exited his vehicle and walked down the dark dirt track in an apparent attempt to confront Stewart. A toxicology report found Ward also had marijuana in his system.
"The toxicology report is shocking to see," Johnson said.
Ward's condition was just the latest question in the aftermath of the crash. Did Stewart try and send his own message by buzzing Ward, only to have his risky move turn fatal? Or did Ward simply take his life into his own hands by stepping into traffic in a black firesuit on a dark track?
On the advice of legal counsel, Stewart would not describe what he remembers about the crash at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, but insists what happened "was 100 percent an accident."
"The end result is a talented driver lost his life," Stewart said. "Instead of being mindful of that, people are spending more time pointing fingers right now than they are helping a family grieve and understanding what happened."
Stewart starts 15th in Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Dover. Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick won the pole.
"You're worried about your friend, the circumstances that are surrounding him and how things could be dictated for the rest of his life," Harvick said. "Knowing how much it's weighed on him and all the things he has going on, for me personally, I'm happy for my friend."
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