Shaken Stewart makes first public comments
August 29, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
HAMPTON, Ga. -- An ashen, emotional Tony Stewart made his first public appearance Friday afternoon since the fatal sprint-car incident involving one of NASCAR's most popular drivers, recounting the tribulations of the last few weeks and offering his thanks for the overwhelming support.
His foremost mention, however, was not the return to his familiar No. 14 Chevrolet after a three-week absence, but the family members of Kevin Ward Jr., who he mentioned by name.
"This has been one of the toughest tragedies I've ever had to deal with both professionally and personally," Stewart said. "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. With that being said, I know that the pain and the mourning that Kevin Ward's family and friends are experiencing is something that I can't possibly imagine.
"I want Kevin's father, Kevin Sr., and his mother Pam, and his sisters Christi, Kayla, Katelyn, to know that every day I'm thinking about them and praying for them."
Stewart's words came from a statement that he had prepared, his voice cracking as he read. He departed the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center after his two-minute, 24-second period of remarks, leaving questions to Brett Frood, Stewart-Haas Racing's executive vice president.
The appearance came just 90 minutes before Stewart pulled his bright No. 14 Chevrolet out of garage stall No. 5 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, returning to the track for the first time since the Aug. 9 incident at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park. It also came in close succession with Ontario County (N.Y.) authorities announcing that their investigation into the fatal crash would continue "for at least another two weeks."
Stewart's sprint car struck and killed Ward, a 20-year-old racer who emerged from his car during a caution period to confront the veteran driver on foot at the half-mile dirt track. Stewart has missed the past three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events in the aftermath, with Regan Smith and Jeff Burton sharing Stewart's seat in the interim.
Frood said the timing of the return was solely Stewart's decision. NASCAR President Mike Helton, expounding upon a statement released Thursday by the sanctioning body, said that series officials consulted with outside experts to assist with reaching their decision to clear Stewart for a return to competition. Helton, while not detailing the nature of the third-party consultations, said that such a process is routine and necessary whenever its drivers are out of the car for any length of time.
Helton also added that should Stewart win either Sunday's Oral-B USA 500 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) or next weekend's regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway, he would be eligible for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs. While this year's rules for postseason eligibility include a clause mandating routine participation, Helton said Stewart's "very rare set of circumstances" would fit under a special exception granted by NASCAR.
"I think particularly those of us that follow this sport every weekend know that driver's healing processes are unique, but they are race car drivers, and a lot of times getting back in a race car is something they shoot to do as quickly as they can," Helton said. "So once Tony decided to come back, we then had to go through the policies and the procedures and the steps that we've historically built over time to make the absolute most correct decision we could make under the circumstances we were handed."
While Stewart said he remains emotionally shaken over the tragic events in New York, he added that his frame of mind was heartened by the perspective the time away from the sport gave him and the prospect of taking some measure of comfort from being behind the wheel.
"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," said Stewart, a three-time champion in NASCAR's premier series. "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. 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."
That part of the therapeutic process began with the afternoon's opening Sprint Cup practice and Friday night's Coors Light Pole Qualifying. Stewart placed 10th on the speed chart in the opening session, but Greg Zipadelli -- Stewart-Haas' vice president of competition -- said before the 90-minute session that the prime objective would be to get his driver re-acclimated to seat time.
"It'll be a little bit of race runs. It'll be some qualifying runs to get ready to qualify," Zipadelli said. "(Saturday) will be a lot more concentrated on race runs so it'll be good just to let him get in a few laps. It's not a very fast pace. We've got a lot of time to think about things and get him comfortable in a race car."
Frood said he had no concerns about Stewart's readiness, despite the weekend whirlwind of attention.
"I think it's going to be very overwhelming being in that garage today," Frood said. "He's going to feel an awful lot of support. As I just mentioned, this is his family. It's the crew members, it's the officials, it's the drivers. It's his family that he's been with since 1999. This is going to be part of that process for him. I believe it's going to be an overwhelming process, this weekend.
"That being said, Tony Stewart is a race car driver. He's been a race car driver for the past 35 years. When he puts that helmet on in practice, I'm quite convinced he'll be ready to race the car, he'll be able to separate the two."