Ward's death is a tragedy for all sides

Posted: August 15, 2014

FOR SEVERAL DAYS, I've been thinking about how to approach the racing tragedy that occurred Saturday night when Kevin Ward Jr. died at a small racetrack in upstate New York after being struck by Tony Stewart's car. There are so many sides to what happened. This isn't the time to pass many judgments.

Video shows Ward climbing out of his sprint car at Canandaigua Motorsports Park after his car had contact with Stewart's car during a race. Ward walks onto the track, toward the cars moving during a caution period, and angrily gestures at Stewart. After the car in front of Stewart swerves to avoid Ward, Stewart's car strikes Ward, hurtling him through the air and killing him.

As of yesterday, Ontario County officials said there were no criminal charges against Stewart, a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. The investigation is continuing.

Ward, 20, clearly made a fatal mistake, walking onto the track with the cars still moving. As an experienced dirt-track racer, Ward knew how slippery the track is.

Like many local tracks, the half-mile dirt track in the Finger Lakes region is dimly lit. Ward wore a black racing suit and racing helmet. At these small tracks, there are no spotters or radio communication during races, so the other drivers couldn't be alerted that Ward was on the track.

Did Stewart speed up and swerve to scare Ward? That would be comparable to throwing a fake punch to intimidate someone. If Stewart, 43, hit the throttle, causing his car to swerve and hit Ward, he has to live with the consequences forever.

In an interview with the Syracuse Post-Standard, Kevin Ward Sr. said: "Apparently, Tony Stewart was the only one driving out there who didn't see him. Tony Stewart was the best damn driver by far on the track that night. Why he had to go up as high as he did and hog my son, there's no reason for it."

Still, it's puzzling that Ward was so angry that he would confront Stewart in such a dangerous area. Contact is frequent in sprint-car racing.

In this case, Stewart didn't run Ward off the track and over the low retaining wall. The worst Stewart appeared to do is pinch Ward's car against the wall.

Did Ward confront Stewart to prove he wouldn't back down to a big-time racer? We'll never know.

Stewart raced at Canandaigua before. Last year, he accepted blame for a 15-car wreck there that involved Ward.

Stewart did not race at Watkins Glen last Sunday and he might not race at Michigan this Sunday.

Since Stewart, 21st in points with no wins this year, isn't likely to make the Chase, I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't race the rest of this season.

How weird is it that a year ago, the Glen also was the first race Stewart missed after he suffered a broken leg in a sprint-car race at Southern Iowa Speedway?

Sanctioning organizations such as NASCAR are expected to approve a rule that drivers cannot exit their cars unless there is a fire.

I do know that if this doesn't persuade Stewart to stop racing sprint cars, nothing will.

A.J.'s perfect timing

Just when fans and media need a story to lift the gloom caused by Kevin Ward Jr.'s death, along comes A.J. Allmendinger winning Sunday at Watkins Glen.

Anyone who wasn't moved by Allmendinger's pure joy over gaining his first Sprint Cup victory needs to have his pulse checked. Allmendinger leaped into the arms of crew members; then Roger Penske and Richard Childress, owners of rival teams, stopped by victory lane to congratulate the Dinger. Former NBA center Brad Daugherty, a co-owner of Allmendinger's team, exuberantly lifted the 5-6 driver off the ground.

The way Allmendinger dueled two-time Glen winner Marcos Ambrose in the closing laps was highlight-film material.

"I've always respected him," Allmendinger said, "but I respect him so much now, because he could have easily just wrecked me, and honestly probably moved me out of the way and drove to the win and made the Chase, but he didn't. He moved me out of the way and he leaned on me and I leaned on him back, so to have that mutual respect where we know what the limit is [is rewarding]. I don't believe [Ambrose] is one of the best road racers in NASCAR [or] one of the best in the U.S. I believe he's one of the best in the world."

Referring to Penske and Childress, Allmendinger said, "That meant the world to me because it means that to me, at least, that I'm still a part of their family, too, and they care about me. As Tad [Geschickter, team owner] was saying, what Richard Childress has done for us between the alliance and ECR motors and what Chevy has done to help us get to this point, we couldn't do it without them. Everything that just happened in victory lane was something that I'll never forget."

Gordon in Delaware

Four-time Cup series champion Jeff Gordon will participate in a free Q&A Wednesday Aug. 20 at 2:30 p.m. at the Rehoboth Beach (Del.) bandstand to promote the AAA 400 Cup race Sept. 28 at Dover International Speedway.

This week's race

Pure Michigan 400

Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn, Mich.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m. TV: ESPN

Course: 2-mile oval

Distance: 200 laps/400 miles

Forecast: scattered thunderstorms, mid-70s

Last year’s winner: Joey Logano

Last year’s pole: Logano, 203.949 mph

Track qualifying record: Kevin Harvick, 204.557 mph (June 2014)

Track facts: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has pried the points lead from Jeff Gordon, who led 14 of the previous 15 weeks . . . Joey Logano led the most laps (51), including the last four, to win last year’s August race at Michigan. Jimmie Johnson won this year’s June race at the track. Kevin Harvick finished second in both . . . Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, was fined $25,000 by NASCAR for the No. 4 Chevrolet carrying added weight in Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen . . . Johnson, the reigning Sprint Cup champion, has one top-10 finish in the previous six races . . . Greg Biffle has the most wins (four) at Michigan among active drivers. He needs a win in the four remaining before the Chase begins to guarantee himself a place in the 10-race playoff.

Wins: Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr., 3 each; Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, 2 each; Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch,

Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, A.J. Allmendinger, 1 each.

POINTS

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. ... 773

2. Jeff Gordon ... 769

3. Matt Kenseth ... 703

4. Brad Keselowski ... 696

5. Joey Logano ... 671

6. Carl Edwards ... 658

7. Jimmie Johnson ... 650

8. Kevin Harvick ... 645

9. Ryan Newman ... 645

10. Kyle Larson ... 635

11. Clint Bowyer ... 634

12. Greg Biffle ... 626

13. Kasey Kahne ... 622

14. Austin Dillon ... 616

15. Kyle Busch ... 615

16. Marcos Ambrose ... 584

Up next: Irwin Tools Night Race, Aug. 23, Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, Tenn., 7:30 p.m.; TV: 6ABC; last year’s winner: Matt Kenseth.


Email: fleiscb@phillynews.com

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