Days after Ontario County (N.Y.) District Attorney Michael Tantillo announced Tony Stewart would not be charged with a crime in the death of fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr., a reflective Stewart addressed reporters Monday to discuss his future in racing, his state of mind since August and to once again claim his innocence.
"I don't know if it'll ever be normal again," Stewart told reporters. "Before the accident, a day would fly by me. Now a day seems like two-three days. Like the batteries are running low on the clock."
While competing in a sprint car race in Canandaigua, New York, on Aug. 9, Stewart got into an on-track incident with Ward, sending the latter's car into the outside retaining wall. Angered, Ward tried to approach Stewart as he came by under caution. As Ward approached, the side of Stewart's car hit him and sent him flying across the track.
Ward, who was 20 years old, died as a result of injuries suffered in the crash. Stewart, amid calls for his arrest, took three weeks off from the NASCAR schedule before returning on Aug. 31 at Atlanta. He has participated in the last five Sprint Cup races while authorities investigated the incident.
Following a month-and-a-half investigation, Tantillo cleared Stewart of all charges last Wednesday. The Ontario County DA said his office talked to "approximately two dozen" witnesses and didn't find enough evidence of wrongdoing to send a case to trial.
"After listening to and questioning all of the witnesses and reviewing all of the evidence, the grand jury has determined there is no basis to charge Tony Stewart with any crimes," Tantillo said, per USA Today. "This case was therefore no-billed by the grand jury."
Stewart maintained a sullen sincerity throughout the press conference but did not waver amid pointed questions, at times deflecting the focus away from himself and toward viewing Ward's death as a tragedy. He also complimented Tantillo on how he investigated the case, per The Score's NASCAR feed:
Monday was the first time Stewart was able to answer questions publicly without the specter of an investigation. The silence helped create a story within a story, as the racing community fractured with some painting Stewart in the worst possible light and others staunchly defending his innocence.
Stewart said he found the bickering "disappointing," saying picking sides would not change what happened, per Dustin Long of Motor Racing Network:
Since the crash, the Ward family has been highly critical of Stewart, questioning his motivations as well as the criminal investigation. In an open letter published Sunday by USA Today, Kevin Ward Jr.'s aunt, Wendi Ward, wondered how a "NASCAR star totally forgot what caution means."
"Our son got out of his car during caution while the race was suspended, all other vehicles were reducing speed and not accelerating, except for Tony Stewart who intentionally tried to intimidate Kevin but accelerating and sliding his car towards him causing this tragedy," Pamela Ward, Kevin's mother, told CBS News.
Stewart said Monday he has not spoken to the Ward family. He said he's open to having a dialogue with the Wards, but a conversation will not be necessary for him to gain closure.
"I know what happened and I know that it was an accident," Stewart said, per TMZ Sports. "I'm willing to talk to [Kevin's family] if it [will] help them...I'm available if and when they want to talk."
A co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, the No. 14 driver said he's eschewed all typical ownership duties since the crash. He hoped that having this press conference and clearing the air would allow him to start re-engaging in normal activities.
As for sprint car racing, that's another question entirely. Last month's accident came a year after Stewart suffered a serious leg injury in a sprint car race. While he would not rule out eventually returning to the format—which is not sanctioned by NASCAR—sprint cars sounded like the last thing on Stewart's mind, per Nate Ryan of USA Today:
The NASCAR Sprint Cup series will be at Kansas this week. Stewart is expected to participate.
The Ward family has not commented on Stewart's press conference at this time. Pamela Ward told CBS News that the family is still considering filing a civil lawsuit.
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