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Stewart: Driver Death ‘Will Affect My Life Forever’

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, August 29 2014

Tony Stewart on Friday talked about the fatal incident in New York. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

A visibly shaken Tony Stewart addressed the media on Friday for the first time since he was involved in a sprint car race incident which claimed the life of 20-year-old driver Kevin Ward Jr. at a dirt track in New York state.

Stewart read a prepared statement during a press conference in the media center at Atlanta Motor Speedway, site of this week’s Sprint Cup race – a race that marks the return of the three-time Cup champion to a race car.

“This has been one of the toughest tragedies I’ve ever had to deal with,” Stewart said, with voice shaking, “both professionally and personally. This is definitely something that will affect my life forever. This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life.

“With that being said, I know that the pain and the mourning that Kevin Ward’s family and friends are experiencing is something that I can’t possibly imagine. I want Kevin’s father, Kevin Sr., and his mother, Pam and his sisters…to know that every day I’m thinking about them and praying for them.

“The racing community is a large family, as you guys know, and everybody’s sadden with this tragedy. I want to thank all my friends and family for all their support at this emotional time, and the support from the NASCAR community, our partners, all of employees has been overwhelming.”

Stewart announced Thursday that he would return to the driver’s seat this weekend.

Stewart sat out the past three races – at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn and Bristol Motor Speedway – following the tragic accident on Aug. 9 involving Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint car feature at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.

Regan Smith filled in for Stewart at The Glen while Jeff Burton took the ride at Michigan and Bristol.

“I’ve take the last couple of weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family and also to cope with the accident in my own way. It’s given me the time to think about life and how easy it is to take it for granted,” Stewart said.

NASCAR president Mike Helton appeared at a second press conference concerning Stewart at AMS Friday afternoon.

“We have cleared Tony to return as part as our normal process when a driver has been absent from participating,” Helton said.

Heldon said that NASCAR officials feel Stewart is ready to drive again. He said, “worked with outside experts before clearing Tony Stewart to return to competition.”

Because Stewart has not started every race this season – something that a new rule says is necessary for inclusion in the Chase – his clearance to drive in the playoff should he win a race the next two weeks is in doubt.

Helton said that the new rule also allows for special circumstances – that NASCAR could allow a driver who has not started all the races to participate in the Chase should he qualify.

Helton said that NASCAR has decided to allow Stewart into the Chase if he qualifies because, “This has been a very unique set of circumstances to Tony and to our sport.

“After evaluating the circumstances around this occurrence, we’ve come to the conclusion that Tony would be eligible to participate in the Chase if he were to earn a spot in it.”

Officials in Ontario County, N.Y. continue to investigate the incident in which Ward  got out of his wrecked car and was struck by Stewart’s car during a caution.

Stewart said he would not answer questions because of the on-going investigation but did say he would like to get together and meet with the Ward family.

“There will be a day when I can sit here and answer questions,” Stewart said.

He also said that he is returning to racing as a means to help him cope with the tragedy.

Brett Frood, the executive vice president of Stewart-Haas Racing, did take questions at the press conference.

“I think for Tony, it’s all about this healing process,” Frood said of the decision to drive this weekend. “That’s part of why he’s in the car.

“Besides his mom, his dad, his sister, his niece and nephew, his family is here, it’s at this racetrack. It’s part of the healing process of being with his family that he’s been with since 1999, knowing that these people are going to help him get through this. I think that’s one side of it.

“The other side of it is he’s a racer. We have 270 employees. I think him putting a helmet on will help him cope with this situation.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, August 29 2014
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