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Tony Stewart’s return to NASCAR may be one of hardest things he’s ever done

Aug 28, 2014, 8:22 PM EDT

Coke Zero 400 - Qualifying Getty Images

Baby steps.

That’s the only way Tony Stewart will be able to make his return to NASCAR, let alone to some semblance of normal life.

While he’ll be returning to the familiarity of being in a race car and around fellow drivers and race fans Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it’s almost as if he’ll be starting his career anew.

Sure, he’s a former three-time Sprint Cup champion. Sure, he’s won nearly 50 Cup races in his career.

And sure, he’s one of the most visible, outspoken and both cheered and booed drivers in the sport.

But in a sense, when he arrives at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Friday, Stewart will be restarting his career from scratch.

It’s hard to imagine how Stewart will be able to climb into his race car for the first time Friday afternoon for practice with his usual confident air and somehow try to put out of his mind the August 9 tragedy that claimed the life of young driver Kevin Ward Jr.

It’s also hard to imagine how Stewart will ever return to the Smoke of old, the way his fans know and love him by.

It’s incomprehensible for probably 99.9 percent of us to understand what both the Ward family and Stewart have gone through and will continue to go through not just for the immediate future, but the rest of their respective lives.

Forget the fact that this was a tragedy that took place in a race and on a racetrack. Consider instead how so few of us have been involved in accidents that took another person’s life. How can we begin to relate to what Stewart and the Ward family are feeling?

For those that have been in an incident that’s resulted in a loss of someone else’s life, there’s no textbook on how to come back from such a tragedy. There’s no Cliff’s Notes or cheat sheet on how to return to normal – if there’s any way Stewart will be able to do that.

Instead, for everyone who has ever gone through and survived a tragedy that has involved the loss of human life, they’ve had to invariably dig down deep and follow their instinct and best judgment to go on with their lives, to go back to the person they were – or the best semblance they can muster.

There’s no on-off switch that Stewart can turn to go back to the Smoke of old. There’s no way he’ll ever be able to forget Ward’s memory or find a way to put the tragedy of that fateful August night out of his mind.

There’s also no way Stewart will likely ever stop from reflecting back on the accident, nor continue to second- and even third-guess himself to see if there was anything humanly possible he could have done to prevent the tragedy that ensued.

All of that is bad enough.

But then there’s Friday afternoon at 1 pm ET, when Stewart will face the media for the first time since the Ward accident.

Knowing the oftentimes adversarial relationship the media has had with Stewart and vice-versa in the past, it’s likely going to take every ounce of willpower in his body to contain himself and his composure Friday, to not make a flippant quip or lose his cool.

Questions are going to fly at him from all corners, queries that he’s never had to answer before.

After all, how do you describe to a friend or family member – let alone the national media – what it feels like to have been part of a tragic accident that claimed the life of such a young, aspiring racer?

Stewart is likely to be peppered in ways that he never has, let alone ever imagined. In the past, he could – and oftentimes did – snap at a reporter and abruptly call a premature end to the interview, walking away in a huff.

He can’t do that Friday. He’ll have to patiently and fully answer every question posed to him as best and honestly as he possibly can, lest an overzealous questioner attempt to try and discredit any of Stewart’s answers and draw him into a confrontation.

Frankly, Stewart will face nothing short of an inquisition by the media Friday, one unlike any he’s ever endured.

How Stewart gets through that will likely set the stage and tone for every other media interview he’ll ever have for the rest of his life and career.

And frankly, for as tough of a Type-A personality that Stewart has, don’t be surprised if we see tears from him. In a way, Friday’s press conference may wind up being the most cathartic thing Stewart has gone through since the tragedy occurred late on the evening of August 9.

To make sure to himself, his fans and the Ward family that he’ll never forget young Kevin, perhaps Stewart will have some kind of memento or sticker upon or inside his race car to honor and remember Ward. It’s the least he can do to try and somewhat soften everyone’s pain.

There’s no question this tragedy has made Stewart a changed man and he will be that way forever. From here on out, he’ll be known as both a three-time champion and, sadly, someone who was involved in an tragic accident that killed another human being.

And also from here on out, Stewart will just have to approach everything a day, hour or even a minute at a time – and it will start by taking one baby step after another.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

  1. rgrooms1 - Aug 28, 2014 at 8:52 PM

    I’d say one of the hardest things to do is to say farewell and bury one of your family members….especially a son or daughter that is way to young.

    • ravenscaps48 - Aug 28, 2014 at 9:06 PM

      True… But Ward shouldn’t have gone down INTO the racing groove and tried to pick a fight with a car that was going in his direction at 50ish MPH. That’s the bottom line!

      • theeduck2000 - Aug 28, 2014 at 9:38 PM

        Stewart has done that before. Are you saying he deserved to be ran over?

      • fave88 - Aug 29, 2014 at 11:42 AM

        Exactly. This whole tragedy has been all about Tony!!!!!

      • fave88 - Aug 29, 2014 at 11:44 AM

        Get your facts straight. They were under caution and they were going 30-35 mph. How do you know what Ken was going to do? How do you what Tony was trying to do? That’s the bottom line! To you, you can’t fix stupid!!!!!!!!

    • fave88 - Aug 29, 2014 at 11:39 AM

      Exactly. This whole tragedy has been all about Tony!!!!!

  2. smokinaces69 - Aug 28, 2014 at 9:48 PM

    No one was their and from one bad angled video, all the internet trolls have made a decision right or wrong. In a way they are acting like the savages that were rioting and looting in Ferguson. Don’t have any real fact but made their decision based on little information and if they liked Stewart as a person or not…

  3. davidj1944 - Aug 28, 2014 at 9:49 PM

    Who are you to pretend to know what Stewart feels or thinks? You have no clue what he has gone through or what he will in the future. Take your Dr. Phil physiology crap and f**k off.

  4. techmeister1 - Aug 28, 2014 at 9:59 PM

    We know for a fact that Kevin would be alive today had he made better choices. Stewart certainly did not pursue Kevin yet even if he has no culpability at all, he will need to live the rest of his life under the enormous pain of being accused of killing another racer. Anyone who thinks this is a light burden might want to think how you would feel if a child ran out in front of your car and was killed through no fault of yours. That is the situation for Stewart.

    No one wins from false conclusions or allegations. Only one person knows exactly what happened that night and he is dead – because of his decision to get out of his race car and pursue Stewart’s car on a live race track. The survivors are the ones who will suffer everyday for the rest of their lives because of Kevin’s poor decision. I hope we all learn from this preventable tragedy.

    Condolences to all involved as none of them will likely ever get over this terrible tragedy.

    • fave88 - Aug 29, 2014 at 11:45 AM

      Kevin would be alive today if Tony had not run him over. It works both ways!

      • techmeister1 - Aug 29, 2014 at 11:52 AM

        Actually we don’t know that Tony ran over Kevin. All we know is that Kevin got too close to the car and was hit by it. Tony could not have run over him if Kevin never got out of his car. Other drivers just barely missed running Kevin over. Accusing someone of a crime based on the other person’s poor judgment is unscrupulous and ignorant. If Stewart did not go after Kevin, then the blame lies completely with Kevin and no one else.

  5. aug99 - Aug 28, 2014 at 10:16 PM

    Only tony knows what he did and why.
    All the rest of us can just guess.
    My guess is he meant to clip him, teach him a lesson, not kill him.
    But tony HAD to know what that car was going to do when he hit the gas.
    And why did he hit the gas at that point ?

    • indycarseries500 - Aug 29, 2014 at 10:12 AM

      …because that’s how you turn a sprint car. Don’t know why it’s so hard to understand it’s not a sports/formula/stock car on pavement it’s a sprint car on dirt.

  6. chad4208 - Aug 28, 2014 at 10:43 PM

    OH MY GOD. all this time and you are STILL asking why he hit the gas? STILL? That was one of the first things explained if you ever bothered to do any research on the incident. So you pose your opinion yet, you STILL have so little knowledge of the incident that you dont even know why he was working the throttle? wow.

  7. techmeister1 - Aug 28, 2014 at 10:53 PM

    For the technically challenged… we don’t even know if Tony blipped the gas or someone else was heard blipping the gas but what we do know is that this is the only way to turn a race car with a locked rear axle as the front wheels alone just slide up the track because they lack sufficient traction to turn the car on a tight enough radius. Basing your conclusion that Stewart has ANY culpability in the incident on your technical ignorance of the vehicle operation is how people reach FALSE conclusions.

    For the record Kevin’s friend and fellow racer who was an eye witness in a race car a couple cars behind Stewart has started that he felt Stewart did everything possible to AVOID hitting Ward, Jr.

    Let the experts finish their investigation and reach their conclusions based on the FACTS not hearsay, hate or media reports.

    BTW I have never been a Stewart fan but I do not let that distort my view of this terrible tragedy. Kevin Ward Jr. would be alive today if he had used his head and stayed in his car, but he didn’t and that’s the real tragedy. Now all survivors must live with the terrible pain of this incident.

    • dwnascarnut - Aug 29, 2014 at 8:00 AM

      Even if Tony did hit the gas to turn the car, if you take a good look at the video you will see that the rear of the car pitched down toward the inside of the track and not towards Ward who was on the high side of the track. What you do not see because of Tony’s car being in the way was Ward moving down the track towards Tony.

  8. karenmessersmith - Aug 29, 2014 at 12:10 AM

    there will always be haters out there.That is just human nature.I am a fan and will continue to be one.

    • fave88 - Aug 29, 2014 at 11:47 AM

      If it had not been the great Tony Stewart that had hit and killed Kevin Ward, would you fans still be defending the driver that killed a 20 year old that made a tragic mistake? I highly doubt it!!!!

      • ctbrady2006 - Aug 29, 2014 at 2:01 PM

        I’m not really a tony Stewart fan but I don’t feel this was intentional. Is there anyone else out there who see this in another way. Who thinks that had this been involoving someone like Tony Stewart we probably would have not had to hear the hash, rehash and over rehashing of all of this. My thoughts are that because of Tony’s fame and position in Nascar he’s got deep enough pockets that could be tapped into for a settlement of some sort. If he was just your run of the mill weekend guy who goes to a local track to live out a race car driver fantasy carreer we would never have heard of it.

        Call me cynical, I don’t care. Though I probably won’t be routing for a Stewrt win this weekend I will be wishing for him a return to a normal a life as he can as quickly as he can. He’s done nothing to deserve what has happened. Ward didn’t deserve to be killed but it was his own poor judgment that caused that very thing to happen!

      • ctbrady2006 - Aug 29, 2014 at 2:06 PM

        I want to correct something from my blog. I mean to say had this been involving anyone else but Tony or other high profile professional race car drivers the situation would have been handled very differently!

  9. gwh88 - Aug 29, 2014 at 1:22 AM

    No matter what his intentions, he never meant for this outcome. Tony did not so anything different than a number of other drivers have done in the past. Good luck this weekend Tony and hopefully all on both sides can heal.

  10. jinx21fan - Aug 29, 2014 at 2:26 AM

    I have no sympathy for that fat f**k. He has gone out of his way to be an a**hole. There is obviously no proof one way or the other. I happen to believe he meant to scare the kid and it went bad. But I have no proof, so I hope karma gives him what he truly deserves good or bad. There is plenty of proof of him being an a**hole, so I stand by that. And he is fat, so I stand by that as well.

    • jacoby66forhof - Aug 29, 2014 at 7:04 AM

      Well Jinx you have given us all ample proof you are an ignorant fool. Karma is a bitch and it will impact your life in one way or another before to long. Enjoy

      I have never been a Stewart fan. Don’t like the way he carries himself, usually behind a couple of his pit crew members, when he has a disagreement with another driver. Having said that, I will reserve judgement on Stewart in regards to this tragedy after his presser today. His words and demeanor will say a lot.

    • genger14 - Aug 29, 2014 at 7:12 AM

      Jinx, beware… you are displaying all those lovely traits you claim to despise in Stewart. I’d love to sit down and chat with you – I’ve never met anyone who’s perfect before. Must be exhausting, you poor thing! Bless your heart.

    • dwnascarnut - Aug 29, 2014 at 8:02 AM

      You sir are not a fan of the sport, you are simply an “A*S*S”

    • jinx21fan - Aug 29, 2014 at 4:56 PM

      Here’s your fat f**king hero’s press conference if you missed it ….

      • jinx21fan - Aug 29, 2014 at 5:15 PM

        I will say the 3 weeks off did him good. He looks better than ever there.

  11. genger14 - Aug 29, 2014 at 7:24 AM

    Overall, not a bad piece. However, I love how Tony is supposed to do something, as it is “the least he can do to help ease everyone’s pain.” Sorry, I don’t think he owes any of us a thing. He gives and gives and gives (regardless of the ignorant comments made by others.) I think it’s the community’s turn to give back, and support him. Thanks to his trademark “attitude”, he has been an easy target. The media, and those who don’t care for him, are quick to vilify. Can’t stand people that cast stones… Clean up your own yard first.

    Also, I think you are wrong about this always being what people will remember about him. Time heals and softens the trauma – Does anyone really remember that Richard Petty had his own tragedy in 1965, or that Elliott Sadler bumped Dale Sr and sent him into the wall with a fatal outcome? Again, that’s the wonderful thing about time; it’ll soften the blow for both the Ward family and Stewart.

    • dwnascarnut - Aug 29, 2014 at 7:56 AM

      I know that it was a long time ago……but it was Sterling Marlin that hit Dale Earnhardt on thet tragic day not Elliott Sadler….

  12. dwnascarnut - Aug 29, 2014 at 8:12 AM

    To the Media, Let Tony talk this weekend, just sit back and listen to what he has to say. Do not blast him with all of the stupid questions like: How do you feel or Was it hard to come back? To Mr Steward – Good Luck!

    • dwnascarnut - Aug 29, 2014 at 8:13 AM

      Sorry not Mr. Steward but “Mr. Stewart”

  13. ncnativeraleigh - Aug 29, 2014 at 8:42 AM

    Actions not Words equal Reality and Truth. There sure was a whole lot of open track at the bottom of turn 1 and 2 below where Stewart was during the caution. I wonder why such an experienced driver such as Stewart did not utilize it. Will be very interesting listening to Stewart’s perspective and account.

    • indycarseries500 - Aug 29, 2014 at 10:15 AM

      …because he wasn’t expecting a mad man to be there running towards his car.

      • ncnativeraleigh - Aug 29, 2014 at 12:31 PM

        That’s a remote possibility, but a possibility. He had a 9/10ths of a caution lap to spot the crash then unknowingly drives into upset driver which spooked him into punching the gas. Sheep.

  14. abninf - Aug 29, 2014 at 1:32 PM

    What must be hard is for Ward’s family to see Stewart back on the track so soon. Out of respect for them I would have sat the season out at least. I feel sorry for both parties. Ward got too close to give Tony a piece of his mind and Stewart had a split second of brain lock when he obviously tried to spray dirt on him instead of going low with the foot off the gas under caution like the rest of the field did. Just sad all around.

    • worknman24hours - Aug 30, 2014 at 8:05 PM

      Well said.

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