- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
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HAMPTON, Ga. -- Tony Stewart will never get over this. Through it? Maybe. But not over it. That was clear Friday in his words and in his tone.
"This is something that will definitely affect my life forever," he said in the most mournful voice I have heard speaking before media, in person. "This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life."
The less than perfect wording was evidence of what his chief publicist, Mike Arning, had said earlier: that this statement was Tony's own. That he "put pen to paper" himself, even though Arning and staff are as good at wording as any media relations people in NASCAR.
It could have sounded more polished, perhaps. But not more sincere.
The man is still hurting -- badly. We don't know what he's been like, in seclusion, these three weeks since his sprint car struck and killed 20-year-old driver Kevin Ward Jr., who was on foot, at a dirt track in upstate New York.
But when he broke the seclusion before going out to practice on Atlanta Motor Speedway, his first time in a race car since the tragedy, it was evident that the monsoon of sadness has not ended. He is a man whose life is bent over, bowed, still overwhelmed.
"Tony's statement that he read was evidence of how overwhelming these circumstances have been," NASCAR president Mike Helton said in reinstating Stewart for Sunday's race after he'd sat out three.
Helton also declared Stewart eligible for this year's Chase "if he were to earn a spot in it." The driver points earned by Regan Smith and Jeff Burton while substituting for Stewart will not count for him. But Stewart stands 26th in points on his own, within the top 30 as Chase criteria require, so he could make the playoffs with a win Sunday or at Richmond next week.
"This has been a very unique set of circumstances to Tony and to our sport," Helton said in explaining how NASCAR exercised the "except in rare instances" exception to its mandate that drivers participate routinely during the season to be eligible for the Chase.
You can't argue with the uniqueness. It just hasn't happened before. Drivers have come back and raced after being involved in fatalities of other drivers before. But they were always in cars. No one had died on foot.
Never has a NASCAR driver had a burden quite like this to bear. The terrible nature of what the Ward family is suffering is unimaginable.
"I know that the pain and the mourning that Kevin Ward's family and friends are experiencing is something that I can't possibly imagine," Stewart said. He named every member of the immediate family and said he wants them to know that "every day I'm thinking about them and praying for them."
As for Helton's perceived evidence of the overwhelming, it seems appropriate here to print the transcript of Stewart's statement as I heard it live, sitting maybe 20 feet from him. Likely, you've heard it on broadcast sound bites or read the transcripts somewhere. But I'd just like to point out the pauses, the sighs, the breaks in his voice that you might not have noticed.
From the second he began until the moment he concluded and left, it took two minutes, 27 seconds. Here's the way it really sounded, and I mark the inflections and pauses. But throughout, whatever else, the tone was consistently mournful and terribly subdued.
"This has [pause] been one of the toughest tragedies I've ever had to deal with. [Pause; sigh] Both professionally and personally. And this is something that will definitely affect my life forever.
"This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life.
"With that being said, I know that [long breath] the pain and the mourning that Kevin Ward's family and friends are experiencing, uh, is something that I -- I can't possibly imagine.
"I want Kevin's father, Kevin Sr., and his mother, Pam, and his sisters, Christi, Kayla, Katelyn, to know that every day I'm thinking about them and praying for them.
"The racing community is a large family, as you guys know. And everyone's saddened [voice breaking] with this tragedy. I want to thank all my friends and family for their support through this tough emotional time. And the support from the NASCAR community, our partners, all of our employees has been overwhelming.
"I've taken the last couple of weeks off [pause] out of respect for Kevin and his family and also to cope with the accident in my own way. It's given me time to think about life and how easy it is to take it for granted.
"I miss my team, my teammates, and [breath] and [pause] I miss [voice breaking] being back in the race car. And I think [pause] being back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time.
"I also understand that[pause] all of you have many questions and want a lot of answers. However, I need to respect the ongoing investigation process and cannot answer and address the questions at this time.
"Emotionally [voice cracking], I'm not sure if -- if I -- could answer 'em anyway.
"I'm here to race this weekend, and I appreciate your respect.
"And there will be a day when I can sit here and answer the questions.
There was a hint, in the "there will be a day" part that, when the sheriff's department investigation is over, Stewart expects to be able to speak of what, in his recollection, happened in those fateful one or two seconds Aug. 9, when Ward climbed out of his car, clearly irate at Stewart, walked into the middle of the track and was struck by Stewart's car.
But for now, Stewart and Brett Frood, the executive vice president of Stewart-Haas Racing, cited the ongoing investigation in declining to comment on the incident itself.
The investigation will continue "for at least another two weeks," according to a statement issued Friday by Ontario County, New York, sheriff Philip C. Povero.
Povero pointed out that the district attorney's office is being kept apprised of the investigation. Still, there has been no indication any criminal charges are pending.
Maybe in a few weeks, Tony Stewart will be able -- or at least able to try -- to answer all the media questions about what really happened.
Even then, maybe, Stewart can continue to get through this. But clearly, he will never get over it.
15dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information