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

Davison, Daly, Kaiser, highlight underdogs of Indy 500 qualifying

Photo: IndyCar
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James Davison and Kyle Kaiser had uphill battles ahead of qualifying for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Davison, in a one-off joint effort involving A.J. Foyt Racing, Jonathan Byrd’s Racing, and Belardi Auto Racing, appeared to have enough speed to make the “500” field, but a crash on “Fast Friday” put all those hopes in big jeopardy as the team needed to scramble to repair the No. 33 Jonathan Byrd’s Chevrolet in time for qualifying.

However, thanks to a herculean effort that saw the team stay at the track until the early hours of Saturday morning, the car was repaired in time for qualifying, and the team survived a chaotic final hour that saw Conor Daly, James Hinchcliffe, and Pippa Mann all vying alongside them for the final two spots in the field.

In the end, Davison survived the bumping to make the 33-car field, taking the 33rd and final spot in Saturday, and saw a dramatic increase in speed on Sunday to average 226.255 mph, putting him a very solid 19th on the grid.

An emotional James Davison walks back into Gasoline Alley after making the Indianapolis 500 field on Saturday. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s been an incredible weekend for the team after our mishap on Friday,” Davison revealed after Sunday’s qualifying.

He continued, “We had to endure a very long night, obviously it’s always depressing when you have a crashed car around here. We punched above our weight on bump day, and got ourselves in, but didn’t show our hand. We really laid it down on pole day to move from 33rd to 19th. It’s basically two days in a row the team has been rewarded for their hard work, making the show and moving up 14 positions on the grid. Unexpected results are always really nice in motorsports and we got that today with our improvement, substantially. Just very proud of the entire team and want to keep the momentum going next week.”

Conor Daly, too, had a stressful Saturday, as his No. 17 United States Air Force Honda – a joint effort with Dale Coyne Racing and Thom Burns Racing – lacked speed most of the week.

“Fast Friday” yielded some promise, as his quickest no-tow speed was 226.752 mph, good enough for 26th on the no-tow chart that day.

Saturday, however, proved a struggle. Unable to find the speed on his first two runs – he was bumped out of the field after his second attempt – he needed a third and final effort to make the field.

A four-lap average of 224.874 mph didn’t leave him much wiggle room, but it was just enough to get Daly into the field, as he took 32nd on the board. He’ll start 33rd after averaging 224.429 mph on Sunday.

Conor Daly survived a stressful qualifying weekend to make the Indy 500 field. Photo: IndyCar

“No dramas (on Sunday), but we’re fighting for miles an hour. All I can do is put my foot down and do the best we can for our incredible partners at the U.S. Air Force. It’s incredible to be here with them and at this point, I’m just thankful to be in the field. I’d like to be a lot quicker, but we’ll see what we can do in practice tomorrow to improve our race car,” Daly detailed after Day 2 of qualifying.

Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing faced a similar uphill battle, but theirs was down to experience. Juncos was entering its second “500” after debuting last year, and their debut wasn’t exactly a smooth one.

Spencer Pigot and Sebastian Saavedra only qualified 29th and 31st respectively, though Saavedra was able to finish on the lead lap in 15th. Pigot, meanwhile, fought major handling issues all race long and languished six laps off the lead at race’s end, finishing in 18th.

The 2018 outing didn’t appear much easier, as the team tackled it with rookie driver Kyle Kaiser, with last year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champ trying to make the “500” in his first attempt.

“Fast Friday” looked to be a bad omen, as they were 33rd on the no-tow speed charts at the end of the day.

But, Saturday qualifying saw a drastic turn in fortunes, and to the positive side. Kaiser qualified with a four-lap average of 225.934 moh, good enough for 21st at the day’s end, and putting them well clear of any bumping drama.

His Sunday run of 226.398 mph exceeded expectations even further, and he will start Sunday’s race in 17th.

Kyle Kaiser during Indy 500 qualifying. Photo: IndyCar

“What an amazing day. I am in shock right now that we are going to be starting 17th for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500,” an elated Kaiser exclaimed after Sunday. “It was a stellar performance by the team. They gave me a super quick car for qualifying. The conditions were very challenging as the wind picked up and it got really hot, but we made it through and put in the best lap in these conditions. I am so proud of the entire Juncos Racing crew and I am thrilled to represent NFP in the race next weekend.”

Follow@KyleMLavigne