Tony Stewart is seen Sunday in the garage area after a practice session for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Watkins Glen International in Watkins Glen N.Y. (Derik Hamilton / AP)
Brooklyn, Mich. — NASCAR driver Tony Stewart is grieving and made the decision to not compete in this weekend’s Sprint Cup series race at Michigan International Speedway, according to Stewart-Haas Racing team officials.
Stewart was involved in a short-track incident last Saturday night in upstate New York that left a 20-year-old local racer dead. Kevin Ward Jr., a 20-year-old local racer, was killed after he left his car following an on-track incident with Stewart and walked into the middle of the track gesturing at Stewart. Stewart’s car hit Ward, killing him.
There is an ongoing police investigation, but no charges have been filed. Ward’s funeral was Thursday. Stewart, who withdrew from last Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup series race at Watkins Glen, also has withdrawn from this weekend’s Pure Michigan 400 at MIS. Veteran racer Jeff Burton is racing for Stewart this weekend.
In a brief news conference Friday morning at MIS, team officials described the state of mind of Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup series champion.
“This decision was Tony’s,” said Brett Frood, Stewart-Haas Racing vice president. “Emotional week for him. He’s grieving. Made the decision he’s not ready to get in the race car and will take it week by week, and it’s going to be up to Tony when he’s ready to get back in the car.”
Stewart has not spoken publicly since issuing a statement last Sunday.
Driver Jimmie Johnson said Friday he has tried to contact Stewart but has not received a response. Like the other drivers who spoke to the media at MIS, Johnson expressed his sympathy to Ward’s family and concern for Stewart’s well-being and understands that, legally, it probably isn’t best for him to comment at this time.
“I think once Tony is able to talk, or does talk, I think a lot of us and many people out there will feel better hearing his side of the situation,” Johnson said. “I know what I believe happened. I think it was completely an accident. It’s such a sad, sad set of circumstances, certainly a hot button for different sides and different reasons and different opinions.”
Frood would not reveal where Stewart is staying.
“Tony’s surrounded right now by his closest friends and family,” Frood said.
Mike Arning, who handles media relations for the team, said no decisions have been made regarding Stewart’s participation in upcoming races. There are 13 races left on the Sprint Cup schedule after Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400.
NASCAR, early Friday, announced it has made a significant safety addition to its rulebook because of last weekend’s tragedy. As part of the new rule, drivers and crew members should never approach the racing surface and they should never approach another moving vehicle. If there’s a violation, NASCAR will handle each separately.
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition and racing development, in outlining the new rule — Section 9-16 — said it formalizes an understanding drivers have had over the years. The rule, which will apply to all of its racing series, is effective immediately.
“Through time, you have to recognize when you get a reminder or tap on the shoulder something that may need to be addressed,” Pemberton said at a news conference Friday morning. “This is one of those times where we look outside our sport and look at other things, and we feel like it was time to address this.
“(The tragedy Saturday night) was one of those that obviously everybody paid attention to. (The rules addition) was on the heels of that.”
Burton, who said he supports the new rule, said he was contacted by Greg Zipadelli, SHR vice president of competition, on Wednesday to gauge his interest in driving, although Stewart had not yet made a decision.
“My role here is to hopefully provide a little stability, give that team a chance to have the most success they can have in a very difficult situation,” Burton said. “Hopefully me being here in some kind of way can help, I don’t know how, but hopefully I can find a way to help a healing process start. I don’t know how that is, but that would be my ultimate goal for everybody.
“Obviously, it’s an awkward situation for everybody. But there’s a lot of people at Stewart-Haas Racing that work really, really hard and deserve 100 percent effort from me, and that’s what they’re going to get.”
Frood, who said the team sponsors have been supportive and there is no issue with team stability as far as that side of things, made clear that Burton will be in the car this weekend and a decision about future races has not yet been made.
“We will talk to Tony, and when he’s ready to get in the car, he’ll be in there, and we’ll go from there,” Frood said. “Right now, it’s about getting Tony in a better place than he is right now. When he’s ready to that, he’ll get back in the car. Don’t care about the Chase.
“It’s been an emotional week for him. He’s grieving. Anytime someone is lost, especially at a race track, it’s tragic. It was a tragic accident. He’s dealing with quite a bit of grief.”
Driver Carl Edwards said people around the country are making too many assumptions about the events last Saturday without knowing any concrete details.
“I think to frame this in the light that we understand what happened I think is wrong — I will say that really clearly,” Edwards said. “I have been racing my whole life. I have been around racing my whole life. I don’t know what happened (last Saturday). I guess the people that know what happened or know what everybody was thinking must be a lot smarter than me.
“I can’t, obviously, tell everybody what they should do, but it is not right for me to discuss what happened because I don’t know. The things I do know is that was a tragedy and my thoughts and prayers are with everybody involved. It seems like the Ward family are good people, and I can say that if anybody in this room – anybody in a 10-mile radius of here needed something — we all know Tony Stewart would help them with it. Those are the things we know. That is all I have to say about that.”