Tony Stewart fatal crash 8-9-2014

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

IMSA: Corvette Racing’s 100th win highlights Lime Rock winners

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Starworks Motorsport, Corvette Racing and Magnus Racing returned to the top of their respective classes in Saturday’s Northeast Grand Prix for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, the two-hour, 40-minute race at the picturesque but tight and occasionally controversial 1.53-mile Lime Rock Park.

Starworks’ pair of Alex Popow and Renger van der Zande won their third race in the last four in the Peter Baron-led Prototype Challenge team’s No. 8 Oreca FLM09, coincidentally all having come since the car switched to a white, red and silver livery.

The pair dominated the race and won overall from PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports, which won this race last year.

Van der Zande held on despite a furious late-race charge from PR1’s Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 car, who shared his car with Robert Alon. Kimber-Smith got nearly to van der Zande’s rear wing but was balked in traffic before the start of the final lap.

The finish of the race was cleaner than the start, which was aborted twice after a pair of incidents.

“Alex did a crazy job in the beginning, P4 to P2 after getting hit twice on the start, then the crew did a fantastic job to get me up front. It looked easier than it was! It was a helluva time getting through traffic,” van der Zande told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam.

GT Le Mans saw Corvette Racing return to the top for the first time since the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, with Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin leading a 1-2 finish in the No. 4 Corvette C7.R over Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen in the No. 3 Corvette.

The win also delivers Corvette Racing its 100th win overall as a team, after being stuck on 99 since Sebring.

“What a job today from these guys – Olly and the whole crew. We had some great wins, then had some struggles. What a way to get 100, with 1-2 for the team, it’s so special,” Milner told Adam.

“Ordinarily we would share the victory between the engineering, crew, drivers… but today the engineers and crew guys did their work, today it’s in the drivers’ hands, at Lime Rock Park, this track, the drivers earned it today,” Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan told Adam.

“Any victory is pretty cool. When you’ve got 99 of them, but 100, who would have ever thought? This is a testament to what this team is capable of doing. With the intense heat, it worked out that way.”

The No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT, which had won the last three races in GTLM dating to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in early May, ended third with Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe driving. Briscoe and Giancarlo Fisichella had late race contact, which took the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE out of a podium spot. Fisichella shared his car with Toni Vilander.

Questionable racecraft occurred elsewhere in class with both BMWs hit during the race, the second incident coming at the downhill, when Earl Bamber (Porsche) hit Dirk Werner (BMW) in a heavy accident. The other BMW, driven by John Edwards, was hit just after the scheduled start.

GT Daytona witnessed an incredible run from Andy Lally in the final half hour of the race, delivering an incredible charge through the field in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS he shared with John Potter to win at a track that’s been a perpetual thorn in Magnus’ side.

“John was on it all weekend. This is so special – these guys worked so hard after the wreck at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Lars planned the setup, we dialed like 80 degrees of wing into this thing, and it stuck,” Lally told FOX’s Justin Bell.

The No. 6 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS of Andrew Davis and Robin Liddell was second with the No. 33 Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R third of Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen; Bleekemolen finished the race despite a busted diffuser.

Five drivers avoid Hungary grid drops over 107% rule

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23:  Max Verstappen of the Netherlands drives the 6 Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen, Nico Hulkenberg, Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez have all avoided grid drops for Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix despite failing to lap within 107% of the fastest time in Q1.

During qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix on Saturday, 11 drivers fell outside of the 107% time requied to qualify for the race in a session affected by rain and red flags.

Many were unable to post a late lap time while others improved dramatically on intermediate tires, causing laps to reach as much as 118%.

All six drivers who were eliminated in Q1 were outside of the required time, as were Ricciardo, Verstappen, Hulkenberg, Bottas and Perez. The latter quintet took part in Q2 as they had got into the top 16, with all bar Perez making it through to Q3.

Ricciardo and Verstappen qualified third and fourth for Red Bull, while Hulkenberg and Bottas were P9 and P10 in Q3.

Teams are ordinarily required to submit a request to the FIA stewards to race if their drivers fall outside the qualifying time.

A request by Renault for Kevin Magnussen was accepted, with the final line of the document reading: “As there is more than one driver that failed to set a qualifying time within 107% of the fastest time in Q1, the cars will be arranged on the grid in the order they were classified in P3.”

However, it now transpires that this will only apply to those eliminated in Q1, with the FIA confirming that due to “exceptional circumstances” Ricciardo, Verstappen, Hulkenberg, Bottas and Perez will not drop back. All keep their qualifying positions.

The 107% rule was re-introduced in 2011 to prevent drivers from going too slowly in qualifying, requiring them to finish within 7% of the fastest time in Q1.

The rule was last enforced at the 2012 Australian Grand Prix when HRT drivers Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan were not allowed to take part in the race.

Since then, the 107% rule has been triggered but not enforced. For example, drivers who crash out in Q1 and do not set a time come into it, but are ordinarily given permission to race if they have set a competitive time in free practice.

Rosberg called before stewards over Hungary pole lap

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP in the garage during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg has been called to see the FIA race stewards over his pole position lap during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Rosberg’s final Q3 lap saw him edge out Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton for pole position by 0.143 seconds, but was partially completed under double-waved yellow flags shown following a spin for Fernando Alonso.

Rosberg was adamant after the session that he lifted enough, and the stewards did not initially investigate it.

However, over three-and-a-half hours after qualifying was completed, Rosberg has now been called in over a possible failure to slow for yellow flags during his Q3 lap.

Rosberg will meet with the stewards at 19:45 local time in Hungary (13:45 ET).

The majority of drivers completing their final laps at the end of Q3 were forced to abort their efforts in response to Alonso’s spin.

Double-waved yellows require drivers to “slow down and be prepared to stop”. Although Rosberg arrived at the scene later than most, he still only lifted, not appearing to slow enough so that he could stop, thus prompting the stewards to investigate.

UPDATE: No penalty for Rosberg after stewards’ meeting

The FIA stewards have confirmed that Rosberg has been cleared of failing to slow for yellow flags on his final Q3 lap, meaning he keeps pole position for Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix.

“The telemetry demonstrated that the driver reduced speed significantly into Turn 8,” a statement from the stewards read.

Rosberg confident he lifted enough during Hungary pole lap

Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg, of Germany, smiles as he celebrates after setting the pole position during the qualifying session for Sunday's Formula One Hungary Grand Prix, at the Hungaroring racetrack, in Budapest, Hungary, Saturday, July 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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Nico Rosberg is confident that he slowed down enough to respect the yellow flags during his pole position lap for the Hungarian Grand Prix in qualifying on Saturday.

Rosberg edged out Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to score pole at the Hungaroring by 0.143 seconds, his final lap being completed partly under yellow flags following a spin for Fernando Alonso.

Drivers are required to slow under yellows, with those who first came across Alonso’s car being forced to abandon their final flying laps altogether as a result.

Alonso had cleared his car by the time Rosberg came to Turn 5, although yellow flags were still being shown, leading to questions about the validity of the German’s time.

“For sure there were double waved [yellows] yeah, but I had a very, very big lift and lost a lot of time as a result,” Rosberg explained.

“I was also slower than on my previous lap in that yellow sector, or in that yellow segment, or whatever it’s called, so I’m sure it will be OK.”

Speaking to NBCSN after qualifying, Rosberg re-affirmed his belief that he had slowed down enough.

“Yeah for sure,” Rosberg said when asked if he did enough.

“I know what I need to do. I did a big lift, so I handled it according to what needed to be done, so it will be OK.”

The Hungarian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday.