Tony Stewart Should Take a Leave from Racing After Kevin Ward Jr. Tragedy

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistAugust 13, 2014

Flowers have been placed at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park site where Kevin Ward Jr. perished.
Flowers have been placed at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park site where Kevin Ward Jr. perished.Mel Evans/Associated Press

There are no words to express the grief now being experienced by the family of Kevin Ward Jr., and Tony Stewart, the NASCAR superstar whose sprint car struck and killed Ward Saturday night at a dirt track in Canandaigua, New York.

A young life, ended far too early.

A seemingly hard-boiled 43-year-old racer and three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion beside himself, also appearing to wonder along with the rest of us how this could have happened and what comes next.

There remains much to sort out, emotionally and perhaps legally, but to those wondering where Stewart goes from here and how this will affect both him and the Stewart-Haas Racing organization he co-owns with Gene Haas, let's hope Stewart takes some time off away from racing. Like perhaps the rest of this year.

Out of respect to Ward's family, it is the right thing to do.

Stewart sat out last Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen and has not yet decided if he will return for this Sunday's Sprint Cup event at Michigan International Speedway, according to Stewart-Haas Racing spokesman Mike Arning.

"The decision to compete in this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Michigan will be Tony's, and he will have as much time as he needs to make that decision," Arning said in an email statement via Fox Sports. "It is still an emotional time for all involved, Tony included. He is grieving, and grief doesn't have a timetable."

Stewart-Haas Racing officials say Tony Stewart is grieving, too.
Stewart-Haas Racing officials say Tony Stewart is grieving, too.Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

Stewart also wisely canceled a plan to race sprint cars this weekend, and Arning confirmed that Stewart will not resume any "extra-curricular racing plans ... until further notice."

Stewart will race again, no doubt. That is what racers do, even in the face of adversity and tragedy. But right now it is way too soon for Stewart to climb into a car again given the media circus that will accompany it and take away from what really should matter.

Right now this should be about Kevin Ward Jr. and the safety improvements to sprint car racing the tragedy already appears to be bringing about. Perhaps spurred on all too often by the likes of Stewart and other big-time NASCAR stars who climb from their cars in an angered state, sprint car drivers frequently have been known to give in to racing rage and place themselves in danger by scrambling from their wrecked vehicles to confront other drivers before safety crews can arrive.

Hopefully, that already is changing on the sprint car level and will have an upward ripple effect, as noted by Nate Ryan of USA Today:

At least two dirt tracks in New York made changes Monday as Brewerton Speedway and Fulton Speedway announced in a website release that drivers would be required to stay in their cars during an accident. If a driver were to exit the car during a yellow, the race would be placed under a red flag, and the penalty could include a fine or suspension. 

Will Stewart ever be the same after all of this? The obvious answer is no. How could anyone be the same after being involved in such a horrific incident? But to guess exactly how it might change him as a driver or a person would be pure speculation.

Even he needs time to figure all of this out. Time away from the track.

Fellow driver Greg Biffle told the media on a national teleconference call, per Fox Sports, that he has not yet reached out to Stewart, adding: "I just thought that it would be best to let him have some space right now. I know he's going through a lot. It's got to be difficult for anyone to be in that position." 

Will Stewart eventually return to the hard-driving style that won him three titles in NASCAR's top series? Who knows? He already was going through a difficult Sprint Cup season, attempting to come back from a serious broken leg he suffered while racing sprint cars on dirt a year ago.

And what will the sponsors of his race team and the three other teams at Stewart-Haas Racing make of all this? That is more difficult to predict, and it might be predicated on how carefully Stewart handles the coming days, weeks and months.

If he handles this in such a way that they deem wrong or in any way insensitive going forward, Stewart could be considered radioactive and SHR could lose millions in sponsorship dollars not only for the No. 14 car he drives, but also from the sponsors for cars driven by teammates Kevin Harvick, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch. The same could be true if criminal or civil charges are brought against him at some point, the possibility of which remains unclear at this time.

All of this will determine any negative long-term effect this may have on Stewart's racing legacy, although he has done many good things for the sport that should not be forgotten—especially at the grassroots level of dirt racing. He never is more at home or more passionate, for instance, than when he is racing at his beloved Eldora Speedway, or even just watching others race there.

So when will Stewart race next? Nobody knows at this point, but it should not be anytime soon. 

The important thing to remember in all of this is that 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. deserved a better fate, whether or not he was at fault for climbing from his wrecked car too quickly and needlessly marching into harm's way. 

The Ontario County Sheriff's Department said it continues to investigate the incident, but Sheriff Philip Povero said in a Monday news conference, via Fox Sports: "No criminal charges have been placed against anyone and there are no facts at this point that would support probable cause of any criminal behavior."

Dealing with incidents such as these, unfortunately, is not new in racing, a dangerous sport with inherent risks known to all who participate. And one thing that is clear is that the racing will go on.

Sad as it is, it did after young Adam Petty's death during a practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in May 2000.

According to the book The Wildest Ride, Kyle Petty, then an active Cup driver and Adam's father, met with the media at Dover less than a month after the incident that cost him his son and said:

It never crossed my mind to quit. This is what the Petty family has always done, as a family. You don't quit. You just keep plugging along. We're like a bunch of farmers. Just because things have been bad you don't quit.

That is the mentality of a racer, and Stewart is a pure racer.

When the time is right—and this weekend at Michigan isn't it, as it's way too soon—he will climb back into a Sprint Cup car and no doubt find it very therapeutic. But he must balance that decision in such a way as to somehow make certain he is honoring the memory of Kevin Ward Jr. and respecting the lengthy grieving process that Ward's family is facing.

Maybe Stewart's sponsors or those in Stewart's inner circle will suggest it would be best for him to take the rest of the year off. And maybe, if they were to do so, they would be right.


Joe Menzer has written six books, including The Wildest Ride: A History of NASCAR, and now writes about racing and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.