Jeff Burton completed an emotional week at Michigan International Speedway with a 37th-place finish Sunday in the Pure Michigan 400.
Burton drove the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Chevy in place of owner-driver Tony Stewart, who missed his second consecutive race after his car hit and killed a fellow driver Aug. 9 on a dirt track in upstate New York.
“This was a hard week,” Burton said. “Honestly, one of the hardest I’ve ever spent, coming here Friday and not knowing what to expect.”
Burton, who retired from full-time driving last year, said it has been difficult listening to conjecture about what happened between Stewart and Kevin Ward Jr., a 20-year-old sprint car racer who was buried Thursday.
“These are people that we are talking about,” Burton said. “You have a lot of conversations about the ‘what ifs’ and all this, but at the end of the day these are real people. … Human beings have feelings and I think a lot of times we forget that. We talk about people like they are robots and they are not – they are human beings.
“Just listening to some of the misinformation and people speculating about stuff, I just thought it was a travesty in a lot of ways. Ultimately, all that really weighed on me, knowing that we had at least two families just in agonizing pain and really not being able to do anything about it.”
Stewart-Haas executive vice president Brett Frood said Friday a decision on when Stewart will return to racing remains uncertain. The incident, which happened at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, is still under investigation in Ontario (N.Y.) County.
“Racing is a community,” Burton said. “I don’t know the Ward family at all, but I know that they raced and that means that I share something in common with them. The racing community cares about each other; even if they don’t know you they still care about you. I think that is what we saw this week.”
Burton defended Stewart and what he feels has become an unfair public image since the accident.
“Everybody in this garage knows Tony,” Burton said. “Tony doesn’t beat his chest and talk about the things he does for people. We know it, we see it, but nobody else does. (Dale) Earnhardt (Sr.) was like that. Earnhardt didn’t want anybody to know the things he did for people.
“That is how Tony is. A lot of people only know Tony because he threw a helmet. They only know Tony because he got mad. Well, hell, I get mad too. I just hate (that) people jump to conclusions.”