On the morning after the sprint car crash that involved Tony Stewart and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr., Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli said it would remain “business as usual” for Stewart’s No. 14 team in that afternoon’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen International.
Ultimately, however, Stewart chose not to compete in the Cheez-It 355, instead handing over the No. 14 to Nationwide Series driver Regan Smith.
The “business as usual” line seemed to resonate with some members of the media, who believed that there never should’ve been any question about Stewart not participating at the Glen.
In his first interview since a grand jury decided not to charge him in the fatal crash at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park, Stewart touched upon how he handled the immediate aftermath.
He indeed traveled to Watkins Glen to prepare for the Cup race and arrived at his motorhome around 2 a.m. local time.
According to the AP’s Jenna Fryer, Stewart believes he was in shock at the time and while he had told his team that he would race, he woke up the next morning and realized he wasn’t up for it in any way.
“You race hurt, you race sick, and that’s the way racers have always been,” he said. “You say you can go do what you need to do, and then it becomes very clear that you can’t.”
With that, arrangements were quickly made to shuttle Smith up to Watkins Glen and race in Stewart’s absence.
That Sunday morning, Zipadelli told reporters that Stewart “feels strongly that this is the right thing to do”; Smith finished 37th in the race after being caught in a late incident.
Racked by grief and sorrow, Stewart did not compete in the next two Cup races at Michigan and Bristol either. Sprint Cup veteran and NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton drove for him in each of those outings. Eventually, Stewart returned to action at Atlanta late last month.
Racing through tragedy is a part of the sport’s culture, for better or for worse. It’s how these brave competitors choose to cope in such situations: Not forgetting, but getting on with the business at hand.
Stewart is as “racer” as they get. To recognize that he needed to step out of the cockpit tells you how much the events of Aug. 9 affected him. Certainly, it was the right thing to do.