BROOKLYN, MICH. - When Tony Stewart returns to his No. 14 SHR Chevrolet is uncertain, and it’s possible one of NASCAR’s most recognizable names won’t be back in the pits this season.
Following the Aug. 9 accident that resulted in the death of 20-year old Kevin Ward Jr. at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park, Stewart is idle for a second consecutive week. With Stewart grieving, Stewart-Haas Racing team announced on Thursday that semi-retired NASCAR Sprint Cup Series veteran will drive in Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
Fan opinions of the Stewart-Ward incident remain split. Many NASCAR fans are behind Stewart, adamant that the driver did nothing wrong, that he did all he could possibly do to avoid hitting Ward, who had climbed from his race car and walked toward moving cars on the race track at Canandaigua. Some also add that Ward essentially caused his own death by climbing out of his car and approaching traffic.
Others, meanwhile, are sure that there was more that Stewart could have done to avoid hitting Ward. Opinions from fans who blame Stewart vary in degree of blame. Some say that, while not intentional, Stewart still could have done more, while others believe Stewart acted with malice and that his actions were deplorable.
An informal survey of fans in attendance at MIS over the weekend showed that a majority of fans are behind Stewart, looking forward to his return to the track and concerned about his mental well-being.
Most competitors in the garage seem to be behind Stewart and certain that the incident was an accident.
“It’s a tough situation altogether,” Greg Biffle said. “Nobody wants to deal with something like that, and we support Tony in whatever decision he makes. He has to personally make a decision on what he wants to do, and we absolutely support that 100 percent.
“Let’s face it; the obvious thing is it’s an accident and, unfortunately, accidents happen. No matter what, accidents happen, and we have to, at some point, move on. It’s a tragedy for the Ward family and everyone involved.“
Although the majority of drivers support Stewart, they are wary of coming to a decision on the matter without hearing both sides of the story and the results of the ongoing police investigation.
“To frame this in the light that we understand what happened, I think, is wrong. I will say that really clearly,“ Carl Edwards said. “I have been racing my whole life. I have been around racing my whole life. I don’t know what happened. I guess the people that know what happened or know what everybody was thinking must be a lot smarter than me.“
There is no set timetable for Stewart’s return to NASCAR, and according to Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood, the decision of when to return is Stewart’s. Frood, Stewart and his team are taking things week-by-week as the driver continues to mourn.
“This decision (to sit out another week) was Tony’s. An emotional week for him,“ Frood said. “He’s grieving. Made the decision he’s not ready to get in the racecar and will take it week by week. It will be up to Tony when he’s ready to get back in the car.“
Stewart’s decision to not be in Michigan removes him from Chase for the Sprint Cup eligibility, even if he returns and wins a race before the Chase cutoff at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway in September. NASCAR rules state that a driver must attempt to qualify for all races before the Chase to be eligible. Stewart qualified his car at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) last weekend before heading to Canandaigua, so even though Regan Smith raced the No. 14 at Watkins Glen, Stewart retained Chase eligibility.
But, according to Frood, Chase eligibility for the Stewart’s No. 14 is low on the list of concerns right now.
“I’ll be honest; the Chase is of the lowest priority as it relates to Tony right now,“ Frood said. “As far as the Chase, the only care I have this weekend is to get Danica (Patrick, one of Stewart’s teammates at SHR) in the Chase. Right now it’s about getting Tony in a better place than he is. When he’s ready to do that, he’ll get back in the car. Don’t care about the Chase.“
NASCAR made an addition to its rule book on Friday in the name of safety to prohibit drivers from walking near oncoming traffic after on-track incidents.
“Throughout the history of our sport, NASCAR has reviewed an analyzed situations and occurances that take place, not just in NASCAR racing but also throughout all motorsports and other sports,“ NASCAR Vice President of Competition and Racing Development Robin Pemberton said. “When we believe we can do something to make our sport safer and better for the competitors and others involved in the competition environment, we react quickly. Safety always has been priority number one at NASCAR.“
The new rule orders drivers to shut off electrical power after being involved in an on-track incident during a race and, if uninjured, lower their window nets. But drivers involved in an incident are to wait until given clearance by NASCAR or track safety personnel before unbuckling or removing safety equipment and climbing out of their race cars. Violation of the new rule, according to NASCAR, will result in some form of penalty.
Sprint Cup Series driver Matt Kenseth thinks it’s a good idea that NASCAR spelled out the concern over safety of drivers outside their race cars on the track during races.
“Anybody who has ever changed their tire along an interstate knows that’s still pretty fast and things can happen,“ Kenseth said. “I think it’s good to spell it out. Most of the time we’re impatient to get out for a variety of reason, even if you’re not mad or whatever, you’re impatient to get out and see what kind of damage you have.“