HAMPTON, Ga.– In his first public appearance since the sprint car accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr., NASCAR driver Tony Stewart, his voice cracking with emotion, sat at the dais in the media center at Atlanta Motor Speedway and talked about the accident’s profound effect on his life.
“This has been one of the toughest tragedies I’ve ever had to deal with both professionally and personally,” Stewart said in a statement he had written. “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.
“The racing community is a large family, as you guys know. Everyone’s saddened with this tragedy.”
Slightly more than two hours before he was to return to the cockpit of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet for the first time since the fatal accident Aug. 9 at Canandaigua Speedway in Ontario County, N.Y., Stewart left the stage without taking questions.
Forty-five minutes after Stewart’s press conference, however, NASCAR president Mike Helton answered one of the most pressing questions of the day, announcing that Stewart would retain his eligibility for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup despite missing three races in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Specifically, Helton addressed the requirement that a driver must attempt to qualify for all 26 regular-season races and must be in the top 30 in the series standings after 26 races. (Stewart currently is 26th in points).
“I’ll remind everybody back earlier this year, when we announced the format for the ’14 Chase, that announcement included some responsibility about the routine participation in the season in order to be eligible for the Chase,” Helton said.
“Along with that importance of routine participation came the asterisk, so to speak, about ‘except in rare instances.’ This has been a very unique set of circumstances to Tony and to our sport. As the league, it’s our responsibility to make decisions that are correct and right.
“After evaluating the circumstances around this occurrence, we’ve come to the conclusion that Tony would be eligible to participate in the Chase, if he were to earn a spot in it.”
Stewart would have to win either Sunday at Atlanta or the following Saturday at Richmond in order to qualify for NASCAR’s 10-race playoff.
Chase status aside, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner seemed more concerned with expressing his gratitude toward those who have sustained him through the crisis.
“I want to thank all my friends and family for their support through this tough emotional time, and the support from the NASCAR community, my partners, all of our employees, it’s been overwhelming,” he said. “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. 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. I also understand that all of you have many questions and want a lot of answers. However, I need to respect the ongoing investigation process and cannot answer and address the questions at this time. Emotionally I’m not sure if I could answer them anyway.
“We’re here to race this weekend, and I appreciate your respect. There will be a day when I can sit here and answer the questions. Thank you.”
Authorities in Ontario County have not announced their findings in what remains an open investigation of Ward’s death. A press release issued by the Ontario County Sheriff’s Department on Friday indicated the investigation would “continue for at least another two weeks.”
Stewart and Ward were racing winged Sprint Cars in close quarters at the half-mile dirt track on the night of Aug. 9 when Ward’s car spun near the outside wall. Ward climbed from his car and walked toward Stewart’s car, which was circling the track under caution.
A video of the event shows Ward stepping toward Stewart’s car and gesticulating, ostensibly expressing his displeasure. Stewart’s car hit Ward and knocked the young driver toward the outside wall, where he lay motionless. Ward was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital.
Brett Frood, executive vice president of Stewart-Haas Racing, remained at the dais at Atlanta after Stewart departed and took questions from reporters.
Frood said Stewart’s return to the track was part of the healing process.