Stewart: I don't know if life will ever be normal
September 29, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Looking solemn and speaking in soft, deliberate tones, Tony Stewart took questions from the media Monday morning for the first time since being involved in a fatal sprint car racing accident on Aug. 9 that took the life of driver Kevin Ward Jr.
The three-time NASCAR champion frequently glanced down at his hands and thoughtfully answered questions from reporters about the impact the situation has had -- and continues to have -- on his life, conceding, "I don't know if it will ever be normal again."
Stewart allowed that it's possible that he will not compete in sprint car races again saying, "At this point, I won't be in one for a while." But he dismissed the idea that he gave any serious consideration to retiring as a professional driver.
"There was never a thought in my head about stopping," Stewart said.
Throughout the question-and-answer period at the Stewart-Haas Racing headquarters, Stewart repeatedly expressed sadness for Ward's family and reiterated that what transpired on that summer night at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park was "100 percent an accident."
While competing on the upstate New York 0.375-mile dirt track in a locally sanctioned sprint car race, Ward's and Stewart's cars collided. Video shows Ward exited his hobbled car and came down the track toward the racing line to confront Stewart on an ensuing caution lap. Stewart's car struck Ward, who was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.
An Ontario County, New York grand jury heard two days of evidence -- which included video replays, eyewitness accounts, accident reconstructions and a toxicologist report that indicated Ward was under the influence of marijuana -- and deliberated less than an hour before deciding on Sept. 24 there was no evidence to bring criminal charges against Stewart.
Asked for his reaction to finding out Ward was under the influence of drugs, Stewart said, "Honestly for me, it didn't change anything.
"To me, a young driver lost his life . … I know in my heart it was 100 percent accident and that detail didn't mean anything to me personally."
And Stewart said that he is, and has been, open to speaking with Ward's family.
"I don't need to talk to them for [my] closure, I know what happened and I know it was an accident," Stewart said. "I'd offer to talk to them if it helps them with closure. I want to be available to them if they ever want to talk."
Stewart revealed that in the days immediately following the accident, he stayed in seclusion in his Indiana home. It was a dark and emotional time, something he is still slowly recovering from with the help of a counselor.
"The first three days, I didn't get out of bed, didn't care if I took a shower," Stewart said, glancing down. "I only left my room to get food. …I didn't want to talk to anybody, see anybody. I just wanted to be by myself.
"You finally get up and you finally start moving around a little bit and every day got a little bit easier, but it was a big, drastic change from what I was used to, for sure, not having the desire to do anything.
"All you thought about is what happened and asking yourself, 'Why? Why did this happen?' So you just sat there for entire days on end asking questions and trying to come to terms with what happened and why it happened."
And if he could do anything differently in hindsight, Stewart shook his head slightly and answered with the candor he is known for during a 16-year career as one of NASCAR's biggest stars.
"I would have stayed at Watkins Glen that night," Stewart said, referring to the Sprint Cup venue he was scheduled to race at on Aug. 10
Of racing sprint cars, Stewart said, "I do these things to have fun. It wasn't a big paying race by sprint car standards. … I just wanted to run my sprint car for a night. I do it to have fun and. …" his voice trailed off, "It didn't end up being fun."
After deciding not to compete in the next three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races out of respect to the Ward family, Stewart returned to the seat of his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Aug. 31 and called the loud and enthusiastic reception he received from the fans during driver introductions that day "very overwhelming."
"At first, I thought I accidentally walked out in Dale Jr.'s spot," Stewart said allowing just a trace of his trademark self-deprecating humor.
"I'm glad I had sunglasses on," Stewart continued earnestly. "It was probably the most flattering and humbling part of my career was to walk out there and have that kind of reception.
"Riding around in the back of the pick‑up truck and seeing people against the fence that were cheering for us and they had Jeff Gordon shirts on and Carl Edwards shirts and Matt Kenseth shirts. Didn't matter what they had on, it really showed the support.
"I'll never forget that moment."
With last week's announcement that no criminal charges will be filed against him, Stewart stressed that he is hoping to begin moving forward even as his life is forever changed.
He explained, "You take it one day at a time and before the accident happened, a day would fly by and now a day seems like two or three days. The clock seems like the batteries are running low."
Stewart called questions about sponsorship support and his decreased role as co-owner of the four-car SHR team legitimate queries. He said his sponsors have been supportive throughout and that Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris was even one of the few visitors to his Indiana home.
As for his team, SHR had two cars -- driven by Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch -- make the 16-driver first round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. However, Busch did not advance to the 12-driver Contender Round in Sunday's first elimination race at Dover.
Stewart was hard on himself with respect to his ownership duties.
"I've let my team down from that standpoint," he said. "I've been a little bit of a cheerleader, but that's about all I've been able to contribute here the last seven weeks.
"It's just, like I mentioned earlier, it's been hard for me to function day‑to‑day. There hasn't been anything normal about my life the last seven weeks, so it's been very hard to try to do anything to be productive to help those guys. You try to be a cheerleader, you try to keep them pumped up about what they're doing, but other than that, I haven't been able to contribute too much."
Stewart promised that despite this life-changing situation, his passion for racing remains fervent. A hugely popular driver and one of the sport's biggest philanthropists, he said he still thinks about the events of Aug. 9 on a daily basis, but is hopeful that as the days go by, his healing will grow stronger.
"It's not something that goes away; it will never go away," Stewart said. "It's always going to be part of my life the rest of my life.
"It's going to be part of Kevin's family's life and it's never going to go away for any of us, but hopefully it will get easier for all of us."
And being back in the NASCAR garage has helped soul and spirit.
"Going to the race track was the first step in reconnecting with a lot of those people and being able to thank them for their kind words and their advice," he said of the outpouring of support he received.
"There's been so much that I've learned from my peers, my friends … whether it's been personal experiences [they shared] or just kind words.
"I don't think I could spend the rest of my life and accurately thank everybody for what they've done to help us get through this."
And, he said, "I don't know that it (life) will ever be normal again, but we'll find a place to settle into and do the best we can like we have to this point.
"Whether I ever get back to that (jovial personality) or not, hopefully through this I will somehow be a better person. That's all I can hope for."