Stewart's comrades search for closure after grand jury clears three-time champ.
DOVER, Del. – It’s difficult to find balance in tragedy.
While there’s a distinct sense of relief that Tony Stewart was cleared of criminal charges in the fatal accident involving Kevin Ward Jr., there are still many heavy hearts in the racing community.
Stewart, the owner/driver, was missed during his three-week absence from the track while he took time to regroup from the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. at Canandaigua Speedway on Aug. 9. But the absence of the NASCAR champion affectionately known as “Smoke” left a conspicuous void in the garage as fans and friends alike awaited his return.
Trying to make sense of the situation
For a myriad of reasons, Stewart’s fellow competitors shared his pain and offered compassion.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has raced with Stewart since he joined the Sprint Cup Series in 1999. Despite his own experience of dealing with tragedy on the track following his father's death, Earnhardt struggled for the right words to describe the unfortunate set of circumstances.
There is sort of a sickness or something in the pit of your stomach for what Tony is going through, but at the same time you never really forget that somebody was killed.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I don’t know if relief is what I had,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t really pay super close attention to what was going on. More or less just letting the process play out and I feel sadness in my heart for the Ward family. But at the same time, you get something in the pit of your stomach that is sort of this frightfulness or this fear for Tony and what he is having to deal with.
“Just having known him for all these years, you can imagine that he is going through something super emotional and overwhelming by a huge measure. There is sort of a sickness or something in the pit of your stomach for what Tony is going through, but at the same time you never really forget that somebody was killed.
“There is a family with a hole in their heart and they have got to figure out a way to live out the rest of their lives with this always on their mind. It will have a huge effect on both sides for so many years. It’s just super-duper unfortunate.”
Let the healing process begin
For Kevin Harvick, who joined Stewart-Haas Racing at the start of this season to compete alongside his friend, Stewart’s absence had a profound effect on him personally and professionally.
Knowing how much it has weighed on him and all the things that he has going on, for me personally I’m happy for my friend.
“Obviously you worry about your friend and the circumstances that are surrounding him and how things could be dictated for the rest of his life,” Harvick said. “Just being around and knowing how much it has weighed on him and all the things that he has going on, for me personally I’m happy for my friend.
“As far as the team we have all got jobs to do and have had to press through them, but I’m overjoyed in obviously a devastating situation, but I’m just happy that it is to a point where everybody knows what is happening in the future and can start the process of trying to deal with it and move on into some sort of normalcy.”
Not taking sides
Still, as conscientiously as competitors attempt to move on, the loss of a young racer and the circumstances surrounding his death have many conflicted, including six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
“First and foremost, I just don’t want to ignore the fact that it was a massive tragedy that took place,” Johnson said. “...From a friend perspective and worrying about Tony and understanding what he’s gone through and how tough this has been on him, I’m sure there is some type of relief that it’s kind of done, in that respect.
“But at the same time, coming back to the Ward family, even in the remarks I read from Tony, I’m sure he feels okay about not having this go any further and there being legal actions. A civil suit is still out there and that can happen for any reason; to anybody in this room. But, the other side of it, still first and foremost on Tony’s mind is that it was an accident and his heart is still out for the Ward family.
“And I just echo those same things. It’s such a tragedy to have these details come out and people potentially forming sides, there’s just no good in that. It’s just been a terrible accident and we need to pay respect to Kevin Ward Jr., and I don’t know how you go on, but just move forward.”