NASCAR driver Tony Stewart addressed the media Friday, nearly three weeks after he was involved in an incident that left sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. dead, saying he hopes that driving will help him heal.
“I know the pain and mourning Kevin Ward’s family is experiencing I can’t possibly imagine,” Stewart said. “I’ve taken the last couple of weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family and to cope.”
Stewart was visibly upset as he addressed the media Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, his first comments since the Aug. 9 incident at a New York dirt track. He has also not raced since the incident, missing Sprint Cup events at Watkins Glen, N.Y., Michigan and Bristol, Tenn. He will race for the first time Sunday, at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Stewart made a statement Friday, but didn’t take questions. He said he couldn’t because of the on-going legal process, adding that he was also unsure if he was ready emotionally to do so.
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“This will affect my life forever,” he said. “This is a sadness and a pain I hope no one ever has to experience in their life.
“All of you have many questions. However, I need to respect the ongoing investigation process.”
Stewart-Haas Racing vice president Brett Frood said Stewart being around the racing family will help him heal.
“It’s all about the healing process,” Frood said. “That’s why he’s in the car. Tony is ready to be in the race car. He wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t.”
Frood said Stewart had sent a card and flowers to the Ward family around the time of the funeral. Stewart, in his statement, said he wanted Ward’s family to know he thought of them and prayed for them daily.
NASCAR president Mike Helton, in a separate news conference, welcomed Stewart back to the garage and called him a “great racer.”
Then he announced that, because Stewart’s situation is “unique,” he will get a waiver from the rules and be eligible for the Chase should he win Sunday’s race at Atlanta or the Sept. 6 race at Richmond.
The investigation by the Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s Office to determine whether Stewart would be charged in the incident is on-going, and a statement released Friday said the process would take at least two more weeks.
The sheriff is looking into an incident during a sprint car race at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park in which a car driven by Stewart struck and killed Ward, a 20-year-old driver from Port Leyden, N.Y., who was standing on the track while the race was under caution.
Racing toward a turn on the half-mile dirt track, Stewart’s car slid into Ward’s, whose car spun and hit the wall. The race was placed under caution. Ward left his car, stepped quickly toward the infield and stood in the middle of the track as cars passed and dodged him. Ward pointed in what appeared to be an accusatory way toward Stewart’s car coming toward him.
As Stewart approached Ward, his car appeared to speed up. Then, 25 seconds after the crash, the right side of Stewart’s car hit Ward, knocking him several yards down the track. Ward was pronounced dead on arrival at F.F. Thompson Hospital.
Six days after Ward died, NASCAR adopted a rule banning drivers involved in wrecks from climbing out of their cars and walking onto the track.
Previously, NASCAR had not consistently penalized drivers who stormed onto tracks during races. NASCAR officials say they had discouraged drivers from the practice, and included it in a video that is shown during the pre-race drivers meeting.
Qualifying for Sunday’s race in Hampton, Ga., is Friday at 7:15 p.m. The race is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Sunday and will be televised on ESPN.