By Kelly Crandall – The prevailing message Monday morning from Stewart-Haas Racing is that @TonyStewart is forever a man changed.
It comes more from just his words, however, as a still fragile and emotional Stewart publicly addressed and answered the media’s questions for the first time, aside from sitting with the Associated Press late last week. Monday, Stewart revealed what life has been like the past seven weeks, which includes now seeking professional help to heal and cope.
He started by acknowledging he did not know Kevin Ward Jr., the young driver who died the night of August 9 when the two competed together at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York. Though now, Stewart says it sounds as if Ward was on a path of success in sprint car racing.
“I’d have stayed at Watkins Glen that night,” Stewart said about what he would have done differently the past month. “I do this stuff and I go run these cars to have a good time and that’s all I wanted to do that night. I wanted to go have fun. I had just spent the week at Knoxville, and it gives you the edge and desire to want to go race. It wasn’t a big paying race for sprint car standards. I just wanted to go run my sprint car for a night. I do it to have fun, and it didn’t end up being fun that night.”
Last Wednesday Stewart was cleared by the Ontario County grand jury of any wrongdoing in the case, except it appears that the Ward family will not let the matter rest. In fairness to Kevin, they stated, they will look into all remedies. Stewart has not spoken to the family and feels he doesn’t need to in order to find closure.
“I want to be available to them if they want to talk about it,” Stewart stated. “I know what happened, and I know it was an accident, but I’m offering to talk to them to help them, if it helps them with closure.”
Throughout the press conference that last a little under 40 minutes, the 43-year-old three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion barely cracked a smile. His voice remained even. Getting back to the personality he’s known for might take a while, Stewart now just takes one day at a time. And those appear to drag on as if batteries are running low in the clock.
Stewart is known for his quick wit but sometimes-sharp tongue, he’s not a prankster but enjoys living life that he has and those who are in it. That has all been changed recently, the days he once knew are gone and Stewart admitted to having an awkward feeling recently just about leaving the house. It was where he put himself in seclusion as he battled the darkest days in the immediate moments following the accident.
While he will not address the accident itself, he’s replayed it in mind over and again. And admitted, he has seen the video.
“I didn’t really do much of anything to be perfectly honest. I think the first three days that I was home I really didn’t do anything. I didn’t get out of bed,” he revealed. “I didn’t care if I took a shower. I left my room to go get food, and that you almost had to make yourself eat. It’s the first three or four days I didn’t want to talk to anybody. Didn’t want to see anybody, I just wanted to be by myself.
“You finally get up and you finally start moving around a little bit and every day got a little bit easier, but it was a big, drastic change from what I was used to, for sure, not having the desire to do anything. All you thought about is what happened and asking yourself why. Why did this happen? So you just sat there for entire days on end asking questions and trying to come to terms with what happened and why it happened.”
There is not timetable of when, or if, Stewart will climb back into a sprint car. Except, tt will be a long time before it does happen. Right now, he’s even become disengaged with what is taking place with the teams he owns in both World of Outlaws and USAC, in addition to being removed from the operation at Eldora Speedway.
It was clear, however, that Stewart will not be retiring.
“This is what I’ve done all my life. This is what I’ve done for 36 years, and I wouldn’t change anything about it,” he said. “I love what I do.
“I love driving racecars, but I think it might change right now as far as how much of it and what I do, but there was never a thought in my head about stopping. That would take the life out of me.”
Stewart return to Sprint Cup competition at Atlanta Motor Speedway following a three-week absence. He’s continually received the largest ovations during driver introductions, and many within the racing community make it a point to reach out to him.
Fans have been ever staunch in their support and thankfulness to have him back behind the wheel. Something Stewart will continue to be ever appreciative of.
“It was very overwhelming. I’m glad I had sunglasses on. But it was probably the most flattering and humbling part of my career was to walk out there and have that kind of reception,” Stewart revealed.
“Riding around the back of the pick-up truck and seeing people against the fence that were cheering for us and they had Jeff Gordon shirts on and Carl Edwards shirts and Matt Kenseth shirts. Didn’t matter what they had on, it really showed the support. Hearing about at Bristol how something that I was really happy with was the fact that on the 13th lap, people held up 13 for Kevin, and on the 14th lap held it up for us. And I think it shows the kind of bond that race fans and the racing community have with each other.
“It was very flattering in Atlanta for sure. I’ll never forget that moment.”
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