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Lessons learned from Dale Earnhardt death readily seen in way NASCAR has dealt with Tony Stewart tragedy

Aug 30, 2014, 3:54 PM EDT

(Illustration: Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images) Getty Images

HAMPTON, Ga. — While it did not occur on its watch or under its jurisdiction, NASCAR has still been forced to deal with the fallout of the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy.

Because one of NASCAR’s biggest stars, Tony Stewart, was involved, the sanctioning body was brought into the fray by default.

Unless they were in a cave the last three weeks, many casual observers to even non-motorsports fans have been made aware of the incident by almost non-stop news coverage.

And many of those same observers or non-fans have the mistaken misconception that because Ward was killed on a race track in an incident with a NASCAR driver, that somehow NASCAR was involved.

That’s simply not the case. The race on August 9 in upstate New York was on a dirt track and in a race series that has no association with NASCAR whatsoever.

Complicating the issue for the casual observers and non-motorsports fans is the fact that Ward was killed in a sprint car race, which sounds too close to a race in NASCAR’s premier series, the Sprint Cup Series.

You can see the confusion quite readily.

With Stewart having sat out the last three races – Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol – to grieve himself as well as not race out of respect to the young Ward, NASCAR had to both deal with the fallout of what happened to Stewart as well as prepare for his eventual return.

That return has come this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

And before Stewart climbed back into his No. 14 Chevrolet, NASCAR enlisted several outside professionals to assure that Stewart was mentally, emotionally and physically ready to get behind the wheel.

In a sense, NASCAR has had to deal with the Stewart situation in a similar fashion as when Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.

The sanctioning body had to close ranks inward to not only deal with the mourning and grief related to Earnhardt’s death, but also had to devise a plan to keep the series moving forward.

It’s been kind of the same way with Stewart. Although he was not killed, he was involved in an incident where another driver lost his life.

In both Stewart’s and Earnhardt’s case, there were resulting investigations, questions about safety and enhanced enforcement of existing rules.

Most notably, just days after the Stewart-Ward incident, NASCAR made it very clear to all competitors across not only its three professional series but all of its sportsman series as well, that it would ratchet up enforcement over drivers getting out of their wrecked race cars before a safety crew arrived on-scene.

NASCAR said it would significantly increase the potential for monetary and points penalties to keep drivers in their cars until assisted out.

The only exception is if a race car was on fire or a driver was in imminent danger of being further involved in yet another wreck not of his or her making (like being on the other side of a blind hill or turn on a road course).

Now that he is back racing, don’t think that NASCAR has ended its oversight of Stewart or actions of other drivers. If NASCAR subsequently believes that Stewart still isn’t fully recovered or healed from especially the mental and emotional parts of the Ward incident, it can park him just as easily as it reinstated him.

Through Friday and Saturday’s practice sessions, as well as Friday’s qualifying round, there was no reason to think such would occur. Stewart qualified 12th for Sunday night’s race at AMS and appears to be as close to being back to normal – at least from a racing perspective – as he was prior to the Ward tragedy.

NASCAR learned a lot of lessons after Earnhardt’s death and, while the circumstances of Stewart’s incident are significantly different, even more lessons have been learned over the last three weeks.

And the end result is the same:

NASCAR takes the responsibility to make its racing as safe as humanly possible very, very seriously.

The sport hurt for a long time after Earnhardt passed away, needing more than a year to mourn and grieve, but it ultimately survived and carried on.

It, too, will eventually get through the Stewart situation. It’s all part of the healing process for everyone.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

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