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Rising Smoke: Stewart’s Return From Tragedy
(Credit: Mike Neff)

Rising Smoke: Stewart’s Return From Tragedy

If it were possible to turn back the clock, a tragedy could be avoided. A young man, hot under the collar, would stay in his car; a wily veteran who used to be that kid would be looking for an angry driver. If it were possible to turn back the clock, the young man might still be alive and looking forward to racing this weekend on a late summer evening. The veteran might not be left to forever second-guess his every move that fateful night.

But we can’t turn back the clock, and the night that Kevin Ward, Jr. walked onto the racetrack to confront Tony Stewart will forever alter the lives of many people. Ward’s family lost a promising young man. Tony Stewart lost a future free of “what if.” We all lost our innocence.

Tony Stewart will return to the race track this Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Credit: CIA)

Tony Stewart will return to the race track this Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Credit: CIA)

It’s been three weeks since Stewart climbed out of that racecar after Ward lost his life in a sprint car race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. Regan Smith drove Stewart’s No. 14 NASCAR Sprint Cup car at Watkins Glen; veteran Jeff Burton raced it at Michigan and Bristol. Fans wondered aloud if Stewart would ever be back, and nobody would blame him if he never found the desire to climb into a racecar again.

But Stewart announced Thursday that he will be behind the wheel of the No. 14 this weekend in Atlanta. For the first time, he will face the judge, jury and executioner in the form of the media and, because his press conference Friday will air live, the fans. That might be the hardest part of all for Stewart. The racing media understand the situation, for the most part; many others do not. Among media and fans, some minds are made up that Stewart is either guilty as sin of trying to show Ward up in a deadly show of machismo. Stewart will have to face those people this weekend. He’ll have to hear taunts from the stands. Will some fans outright call him a murderer?

If they do, how will it affect Stewart, a driver known for both his short temper and his enormous heart? No doubt, whether he shows it or not, it will cut him to the bone. Stewart killed a man. That’s the cold truth of it all. He killed him, and nobody can change that. Whether it’s ruled an accident or not, whether Stewart is held responsible in a civil trial or not, he has to live with that for the rest of his life. He killed a man. It’s an unalterable, life-changing truth that most people cannot even begin to comprehend.

The weight of all that will be on Stewart’s shoulders as he races this weekend. Surely most people would understand if he didn’t race quite up to his own lofty standards. After all, he’s still coming back from a broken leg he suffered last year. On the other hand, Stewart still has an outside chance to make the Chase if he wins this week or next. He’s excellent at Atlanta, with the best average finish of any active driver on the 1.5-mile speedway.

Can he win? Maybe. Would the emotion behind such a win be almost too much for anyone to bear? That’s a good possibility. How could Stewart celebrate a win after Canandaigua? How could he not celebrate for his team, who has worked tirelessly toward that very goal since February? How might Stewart handle the outpouring of support and the tide of anger that would both roll at him from fans? Both are sure to happen when he does find his next win.

Many fans have rallied behind Stewart, probably more than that have vilified him. He will need their support this weekend. Though there is nothing anyone can say to make him feel better, nothing anyone can do to erase the grief he must still be feeling, sometimes knowing someone’s got your back is deeply comforting.

What about his fellow racers? There will no doubt be words and gestures, but perhaps the best they can do for Stewart is to simply race him hard and clean and let the race play out around them all, as they do every week. A return to normalcy amid the turmoil eases pain. Racers…well, they race. There’s time for friendship later.

No matter what comes of the incident in the future, Stewart’s life is permanently changed. It’s unlikely that any punishment that could be levied in civil or criminal court will come close to what Stewart already feels, what he’ll have to live with for the rest of his life. But his return to the racetrack is right, for Stewart and for everyone in the racing community. Racers honor other racers by racing, not by staying home. Racers want other racers to race even when they can’t.

There is a piece of Kevin Ward in Tony Stewart, because there is a piece of every young, hungry driver in him. It’s why he still races at tracks like Canandaigua. He understands the dream and the reality. We all need to understand that dream and that reality in order to understand why he’s returning to the track. Tony Stewart is a racer. Racers race. That truth is, in the face of tragedy, both simple and almost incomprehensibly complex.

How high can Smoke rise this weekend? That’s still unwritten. The important part is that he’s back, and in being back he honors Kevin Ward, Jr.

About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Co-Managing Editor of Frontstretch since 2012, Amy oversees the site’s photography and daily content as well as assisting with staff management. A ten-year veteran writer and three-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, Amy pens The Big Six (Mondays), Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays), Holding A Pretty Wheel (Fridays) and writes a monthly diary with Truck Series driver Brendan Gaughan. A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

12 comments

  1. I’m sorry to think that the real driver for what has happened after the incident is Big Money. Sponsorships and lawyers could very well have set the scene for the grieving time. Some unbiased comments express concern about civil actions after the investigation is complete. Nascar is a millionaires club led by a lucky sperm. Eager fans buy what they are selling. I was born into racing as a sport, not as a marketing scheme. I’m saddened to see empty seats. I reserve judgement on Tony Stewart.

  2. The “tragedy” and the “Poor Tony” are no matter what happens with legal actions or behind the scenes, Tony will never be the same. He has to face himself everyday over what happened for the rest of his life. If it had been me, I’m not sure I could live with that. Only Tony knows what occurred just before his car struck Kevin Ward. Tony’s previous actions could lead to lots of speculation.
    Countless lives have been affected by this incident. Tony, Kevin’s family and friends, Tony’s fans, and non-fans may or may not ever forgive him. I’m not a Stewart crazy fan, but I have always liked him as a driver and as someone unafraid to voice his opinion without fear of consequences. His attitude goes back to the racing from days of the past. Drivers ran their cars into others and had fist fights during and after races. This still happens on the more local circuits. Sometimes I think there are more cops at Bowman Gray than drivers.
    Drivers enter a race track knowing in the back of their mind, death is possible. If they didn’t they would be psychotic. From the lowliest go-cart, to the high speeds of Le-Mans a fatality can be possible. Over the course of multiple years and too many lives lost, rules, regulations and safety changes have minimized the chances of such tragedies.
    My point is when a driver removes themselves from the safety of the car or rescue personnel, incidents can happen. I know when Kevin jumped out of his car to shake or point his finger at Tony, he didn’t think about the unintended consequences. I wasn’t there, and the limited video footage I’ve seen doesn’t give a clear view of the accident. I’ve been on dirt tracks, and they can be slippery and he was on a slope.
    The sanctioning bodies can create rules to keep drivers in their cars to prevent this from happening again. Even with penalties, if a human is mad enough, they’ll do what comes first to mind and put themselves and others in jeopardy.

  3. Amen, paltex. Admittedly I’m a die-hard Stewart fan so I admit bias. Almost no one outside of a comments section, however, has questioned Ward’s actions, and certain Martyrs and Hendrick Heroes get permanent dispensation from on-track behavior.

    Also, as a Stewart fan who was worried that he might never even race again, I hope they do cover the hell out of him this weekend. I don’t care if there’s a dedicated Tony Cam, the Tony Ticker, and Tony Watch. I’d go if I could get there.

  4. Has everyone forgotton Dale senior? Using his antics and rough driving in order to win was not “boorish” self centered?
    Second, no comments as to the kid getting out of his sprint car and rushing onto the track where the cars were running. If he stood next to his wrecked car and shook his fist nothing would have happened but he rushed out to the racing surface as if he was trying to get his hand ito Stewarts car. Just my thoughts but, I think opinions have been formed by listening to the talking heads that want to create a controversity.

    • If you are referring to my comment about Tony’s actions off the race track as “boorish” and use that to justify what Dale Sr. did do or not on the racetrack, you did not understand my statement. I have plenty of opinion about what I saw, as you do. I will not comment however, and I await for the due process to take its course. People are not guided as much as you think about talking heads wanting to create controversy and listening to what they said. Most of us are adults and have a brain and free will to think and form an OPINION as to what we witnessed and heard at any given “event”.

  5. I am waiting for the investigation to close before I say anything. I do know that Stewart didn’t intentionally mean to kill anyone but neither do drunk drivers when they head home from the bar. $*|T happens.
    I agree with some of the things others have pointed out above. I’ve been wondering whether NASCAR forced Tony to sit out too. I’ve too have been a little annoyed by articles trying to overly vilify him or conversely, overly exonerate him. I pretty much feel the worst case is manslaughter the best is a civil suit which he may very well lose.
    I also wonder what NASCAR will do with his chase status. While Hamlin missing the race earlier in the year was a valid medical condition, it is unclear how Tony’s excuse will be weighed. Either way, this decision will set a precedence that will be questioned in the future anytime a driver misses a race and NASCAR has to make a decision.
    I’d also say if Tony would win in the next two races a lot of people will be questioning the “storybook” win (as they always do).

  6. We do not conclusivly know anything yet concerning the circumstances of Kevin Ward’s death. But we cannot wait for anything as irrelevant as facts to keep us from forming opinions. Tony Stewart may be a lesser part of a great tragedy or he may be a man whose intentionally irresponsible behavior killed someone. How about we neither vilify or rally around until the investigation is completed. Until then these Poor Tony articles are just plain inappropriate.

  7. Call me cynical, but he returns to a track that, earlier in the week, was pushed one step closer to being non-existent in the NASCAR world. Odd timing.
    Also, why was there a statement by NASCAR about his return? Was this not Tony/the team’s decision each week? Was there some kind of double secret probation going on?

  8. What a great “PR” picture, Tony with our “future”..”see, he isn’t a bad guy”. No doubt someone’s thinking in posting this picture…:)

  9. Why is the Nascar media trying to create a tragic novel about the tragic Tony? Every article is “poor Tony” and such. I have no comment on the incident but I do have plenty to say about the ever coddling Nascar media and how they “defended” one who’s antics in the past has been horrible to them..the media and well just downright boorish, childish and every other self-centered description one can throw. I do hope Tony’s “return” does not interfere with why we tune into Nascar, the race at hand. I hope he blends into the woodwork and we don’t have to hear anymore about Tony. But I doubt that will happen.