Don’t be too quick to judge Tony Stewart, let the experts do their jobs

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Editor’s note: NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk writer Jerry Bonkowski has spent over 30 years as a sports writer, columnist and editor covering NASCAR and motorsports for USA Today, ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and now MST. He also wrote this column from the unique perspective of having served more than 20 years as a fully-sworn, state-certified part-time police officer.

In the time span of just a few hours after a horrendous accident, Tony Stewart was charged, convicted and sentenced by many in the court of public opinion following Saturday’s fatal incident involving 20-year-old sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr.

So-called “experts” inundated Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other forms of social media, carelessly, recklessly and without any type of evidence throwing around words such as “intentional” and “murder.”

Those are very damning words for an incident that on the surface is an accident until proven otherwise – if it can be proven otherwise, that is.

How can they be so sure that Stewart intentionally struck and ran over Ward, leading to his death, which was confirmed about an hour or so after the incident by Ontario County (N.Y.) sheriff Phillip Povero, according to multiple media reports?

Were those people at the small dirt track just about an hour northwest of Watkins Glen International, site of Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 NASCAR Sprint Cup race?

Even Povero told USA Today that Stewart was “fully cooperative” and that “the incident is not being investigated as a criminal matter.” If the investigating sheriff says it’s not a criminal matter or an intentional attack on the racetrack, how can so many people think otherwise? They base that opinion upon what they’ve heard or read or seen – and sometimes even that isn’t clear-cut enough to make such a serious value judgment as Stewart is being accused by so many.

To me, there are only a few undeniable facts that have emerged from the incident. Everything else is supposition, hyperbole and plain guessing:

* First, there was an on-track incident between Stewart and Ward. Based upon video that captured the incident, it appeared to be nothing more than a typical racing incident that happens hundreds of times each year on everything from Sprint Cup tracks to the smallest grassroots racing dirt tracks.

* Second, again, judging by the video, it appears the area where Stewart allegedly struck Ward was rather dimly lit, not unusual for short tracks such as that.

* Third, if investigating sheriff’s deputies believed Stewart did intentionally strike Ward, would he have been released from custody after fully cooperating with investigators?

* Fourth, do sane, normal and logically thinking individuals really believe a driver of Stewart’s caliber, who has done so much in his career, would throw it all away by intentionally hitting a mere kid on a tiny dirt track in the upstate New York hinterlands? Granted, Stewart has a temper – which has been seen countless times over his career – but would he completely lose control of his sense of right and wrong and go out and murder a kid that he had just spun in a racing incident? Just the thought of that is nothing short of ludicrous.

* Fifth, and this is perhaps the most important part of all: Ward got out of his spun race car. He walked down from the top of the racetrack and into the middle of, again, a dimly-lit area. This is where the true sense of speculation stems. Maybe Stewart didn’t see Ward. Maybe Stewart tried to avoid Ward and it was too late, again, partly due to the lighting in that area of the track and Ward walking down into the middle of the track dressed in a dark firesuit. As much as it pains me to say this, and I’m not attempting to be an “expert” about this event as it unfolded in any way, but what was Ward doing walking around in the middle of a racetrack with cars coming around still under power? That’d be like someone walking in the middle of a freeway to confront someone who he or she just had a fender-bender with. What did Ward try to accomplish by walking directly in front of Stewart, with the likely intent of shaking his fist or pointing a finger at the three-time Sprint Cup champ for spinning him only seconds earlier?

We can’t ever know.

This isn’t the first time a driver has killed someone – and I use the word “killed” in the sense that, yes, a fatality occurred as an end result, but not due to anything intentional on the driver’s part.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty struck and killed – again, I’m using that word in context that a death resulted, but it was not from an overt or intentional act upon Petty’s part – an 8-year-old boy during a drag race on Feb. 28, 1965 in Dallas, Ga.

Petty had temporarily left NASCAR racing that season in a dispute over the use of a new and potent 426 Hemi motor that the sanctioning body banned.

With NASCAR still a regional sport based in the Southeast, Petty moved to drag racing, which had caught fire in its Southern California birthplace a decade earlier and progressively moved east and grew into something that was arguably even bigger than NASCAR at the time.

Petty was in a race on that fateful day when something happened to his Plymouth Barracuda. Either something broke or he lost control – or both. Sadly, the end result was Petty’s car left the dragstrip racing surface and plowed into a crowd of fans, killing little Wayne Dye and injuring several other spectators.

After a long and thorough investigation, the accident was ruled just that, and Petty was not charged with any type of offense that stemmed from the crash.

But Petty has carried that memory with him for nearly 50 years. To this day, he still gets upset talking about it, and more often than not simply refuses to discuss it. Stewart is also going to carry the memory of what happened Saturday night with himself as well for the rest of his life.

For now, regardless of what all the “experts” say or media types looking to grab attention with a flashy headline insist, we know only two things for certain:

One, Tony Stewart was involved in an accident, and two, a young man died. Everything else is an unknown until a thorough and proper investigation is performed, no matter how long it takes to complete.

And when that investigation is completed, it will be by trained and REAL experts who will come to a rational and logical conclusion based upon facts and evidence – and not opinion.

As someone once told me many years ago when I first got into journalism, “Opinions without facts are like noses. They both can smell.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Matheus Leist scores pole for Indy Lights’ Freedom 100

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INDIANAPOLIS – Persistent rain threatened to halted all track activity Thursday for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, before efforts to dry the track came good later on Friday.

But once qualifying occurred, Matheus Leist secured the pole for the marquee race of the Indy Lights season, Friday’s Freedom 100 (live, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Freedom 100 has a knack for throwing up surprise polesitters – Ethan Ringel and Ken Losch immediately come to mind – and Leist, the Brazilian rookie in his first-ever oval start, now joins that list.

Leist, driver of the No. 26 Carlin Dallara IL-15 Mazda, looked a promising prospect after posting the first official lap over 200 mph in series history, a tow-assisted lap of 201.032 mph (44.7690 seconds), and also the best no-tow speed of 199.354.

He backed up with laps of 199.268 and 199.128, respectively, for a new two-lap record of 199.198 mph. The previous mark was held by Ringel, in the first year of the new car in 2015, at 197.684 mph.

Despite seven other drivers that took their shot to beat him, none did. Colton Herta came the closest with a two-lap average of 198.648 in the No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing entry.

Two more of Herta’s Andretti Autosport teammates posted excellent qualifying runs. Dalton Kellett, who was third here last year in what stands as his best Indy Lights finish to date, will roll off from the same position in his teal-and-white No. 28 car, while rookie Ryan Norman will start alongside in the No. 48 Andretti Autosport entry, keeping up his strong weekend.

Zachary Claman De Melo completed the top five in the second of four Carlin entries, while Aaron Telitz upheld Belardi Auto Racing’s honor with sixth on the grid.

While Herta enters Friday’s race third in points, 18 behind the top two, neither Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) nor Nico Jamin (Andretti Autosport), had good qualifying runs.

With speeds of 196.058 (Kaiser) and 195.661 (Jamin), they’ll roll off from positions 11 and 13 in the 14-car field.

Here are your qualifying speeds and provisional starting lineup for Friday.

Prior to qualifying, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway crew got the track dry in time for a 20-minute practice, which Leist also led.

As you can see below, drivers spent the rain delay trying to make due of things.

The points standings heading into tomorrow’s race are below:

1. 18-Kyle Kaiser, 139
2. 27-Nico Jamin, 126
3. 98-Colton Herta, 121
4. 22-Neil Alberico, 103
5. 9-Aaron Telitz, 97
6. 26-Matheus Leist, 89
7. 5-Santiago Urrutia, 87
8. 13-Zachary Claman De Melo, 87
9. 51-Shelby Blackstock, 80
10. 31-Nicolas Dapero, 75
11. 48-Ryan Norman, 71
12. 28-Dalton Kellett, 64
13. 2-Juan Piedrahita, 55
14. 11-Garth Rickards, 54

Hinchcliffe will donate brain to study race-related concussions to help safety of sport

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INDIANAPOLIS – James Hinchcliffe is well known throughout the Verizon IndyCar Series for his sense of humor.

He’s the kind of guy that keeps not just his own team loose, but also does the same for other teams and fans.

Even when he’s talking about a serious topic, he can usually be counted on interjecting at least one or two great one-liners.

Hinchcliffe was in his usual form during Thursday’s Indianapolis 500 Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But while he joked at times, the underlying message he tried to get across was very serious and very poignant to all forms of motorsports.

Namely, concussions and concussion research.

Hinchcliffe went so far as to say that when he passes away, he’s ready to donate his brain to science so it can be studied, particularly for some of the impacts and resulting concussions he’s endured throughout his racing career.

“Oh yeah, 100 percent, absolutely, it’s a done deal,” Hinchcliffe replied when asked if he’d ever consider donating his brain.

He then added with a whimsy but serious reality, “If it can help, if it can be put to use, I’ve got no need for it at that point. Absolutely, I’d donate it to the cause.”

Hinchcliffe said he’s studied the topic of racing-related concussions in all forms of motorsports, particularly IndyCar and NASCAR.

The Canadian driver, who sat on the pole for last year’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, said he’s thought on occasions about the ramifications of concussions upon race car drivers.

But it was NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s concussion that forced him to sit out the entire second half of last season that greatly increased the attention of a number of drivers across all forms of motorsports.

“Honestly, I think most guys would be in a similar situation,” Hinchcliffe said. “Dale’s (Earnhardt’s) situation, I think that was something that a lot of guys had never been asked.

“But as soon as it was brought up, it was a no-brainer.”

Hinchcliffe then grew embarrassed when he realized his verbal faux pas and apologized, but his message was still on-point.

“It’s a very easy decision for us,” Hinchcliffe said. “If we can do something now, especially with something we don’t need anymore (after dying) and it’s going to help benefit the future safety of our sport, then it’s an easy call.”

Hinchcliffe starts 17th in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda for Sunday’s race, a year after qualifying for the pole position.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Vice President Mike Pence confirms Indy 500 visit

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INDIANAPOLIS – Vice President Mike Pence, the former Gov. of Indiana, will be “back home again” this weekend for the Indianapolis 500.

The slight difference, of course, is that his main residence is now in Washington, D.C. since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January.

Pence is a longtime fan and visitor of the race, so while he confirmed he’ll attend on Thursday, it will not be in any official capacity.

“The Vice President is a Hoosier, grew up here, and tweeted some photos. He will be here as a fan. There will be no official role for him at the Indianapolis 500,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles on Thursday.

Rumors percolated on Wednesday he’d be in attendance. On Wednesday, Boles said IMS was in the process of preparing for Pence’s arrival from security and operational protocols.

“We have heard, as have all of you, that there is a possibility the Vice President of United States,” Boles said Wednesday. “We are not in position yet to confirm or deny yet; however I can tell you we are preparing for it. As soon as we know, we hope to know by end of the day tomorrow, we’ll have another one of these briefings.”

Indeed they have on Thursday. The only major change announced was that there will be no pedestrian traffic at Gate 4.

“The Turn 2 suites, just South of those suites is what we call Gate 4. Gate 4 will be closed to pedestrian traffic beginning tomorrow,” Boles said.

Vettel not counting Mercedes out of Monaco F1 pole fight

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Sebastian Vettel is refusing to discount Mercedes from the fight for Formula 1 pole in Monaco this weekend despite the German marque’s quiet showing in Thursday’s practice sessions.

Vettel led Ferrari to the top of the timesheets in FP2 with the fastest-ever lap around the streets of Monaco, finishing almost half a second clear of the field.

Vettel’s F1 title rival Lewis Hamilton struggled through second practice, finishing over a second off the pace in eighth place for Mercedes as the team moved in the wrong direction on car setup.

Nevertheless, Vettel is refusing to discount Hamilton or teammate Valtteri Bottas from the fight for pole, believing Mercedes will find its feet again come Saturday’s qualifying session.

“I am not counting out Mercedes. They probably had a problem today, but I am sure they will be back to full force on Saturday,” Vettel said, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“It is Thursday so there is plenty of time for them to sort things out. My guess is that it will be very close – and that the five-tenths are not the reality.

“We have been able to put it together today and I am happy about that. It was a good start into the weekend. Now let’s let that sink in and see that we keep the tension until Sunday.”

Even with his own strong showing, Vettel is confident that more time can be found, particularly through the long runs that will prove critical in the race.

“The aim is to get faster. If it really works we will see,” Vettel said.

“What I can say right away that the single-lap pace is very promising, and how the long run will work is very difficult to predict, as you always run into traffic.

“My guess is that we still can get better in race trim. We will analyze every single corner and sector to see where we can find valuable time.”