Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 1 – Tony Stewart, Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy

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MotorSportsTalk has counted down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s a full recap of the stories we’ve done in the series:

Today, we conclude the series with our pick of the top story of 2014, the unfortunate tragedy that involved NASCAR star Tony Stewart and aspiring sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr.

 

Even with the huge accomplishment of Kevin Harvick winning the Sprint Cup championship or the new elimination format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it’s hard not to point to the Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy as the top story in NASCAR in 2014.

Granted, the incident happened on a small upstate New York dirt track, and was not a sanctioned NASCAR track or NASCAR event.

But the significance of the news of Ward being killed when he was accidentally struck by Stewart’s sprint car while a race was underway, and the subsequent events that transpired afterward, was something that dominated the NASCAR news not just for days, but for several weeks.

On the evening of August 9, Ward and Stewart were racing side-by-side when Ward lost control of his sprint car and slammed into the outside retaining wall.

Apparently believing Stewart forced him into the wreck, Ward committed perhaps the biggest mistake any race car driver can do – and one that drivers are constantly warned about.

Ward exited his car and came down the racetrack in an apparent attempt to confront Stewart. The only problem with that is the race was still under way, albeit under caution, and Ward inadvertently stepped into the path of Stewart’s car, was struck and killed.

source: Getty Images
(Rich Barnes/Getty Images)

The incident made worldwide news and was perhaps one of the most divisive topics the sport has seen in many years. On one side were the loyal Stewart fans, who believed it was simply a racing accident, an unfortunate event that resulted in the sad and tragic loss of a fellow driver’s life.

Then there was the other side, those who criticized Stewart and held him responsible for Ward’s death. They called for criminal charges, prison and the immediate end of his racing career.

Many left comments on MotorSportsTalk, vehemently espousing their own opinions pro or con against Stewart.

An Ontario County (N.Y.) Grand Jury was convened and for several weeks deliberated the evidence from the incident, as well as testimony from witnesses.

In the end, the Grand Jury absolved Stewart of any potential criminal charges or liability in Ward’s death. Ward’s family still has the option to bring a civil suit against Stewart, but to date that has not happened.

Stewart missed the three NASCAR Sprint Cup races immediately following the Ward tragedy and remained in seclusion for that period.

He finally returned to racing at Atlanta but finished a disappointing 41st due to a wreck he was involved in.

source: Getty Images
Tony Stewart returned to racing at Atlanta, nearly three weeks after the tragic accident that claimed the life of Kevin Ward Jr. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

From that point on, Stewart competed in 11 more races to wrap up the 2014 season, earning just one top-five finish.

Overall, Stewart had arguably the worst single season performance of his career (not including 2013, when he missed the final 15 races due to injuries suffered in a sprint car wreck) in 2014.

He failed to win even one race in a season for the first time in his Sprint Cup career. He also finished with a career low three top-five and seven top-10 finishes.

Stewart began 2014 still not completely recovered from his 2013 accident injuries. And even though he drove with pain, he never let the pain drive him out and away from behind the steering wheel.

Stewart has had two surgeries during the current off-season, with hopes that he’ll be in much better shape to start the 2015 season – certainly in better shape than the way he began 2014.

Will Stewart be able to bounce back to his old championship- and race-winning form in 2015? It would be a great storyline for him to come right out of the gate and win the season-opening Daytona 500, one of the few things in his long career that Stewart has failed to achieve.

In a sense, he’s his generation’s Dale Earnhardt when it comes to winning the Great American Race. It took Earnhardt 20 tries before finally winning his first (and ultimately only) Daytona 500.

Stewart will make his 17th Daytona 500 start this coming season. What better way to put all the sadness and darkness of the past two seasons behind him and to show any doubters that he still has it as a driver than to win at Daytona.

And then bookend that season start by finishing it with his fourth Sprint Cup championship at season’s end.

Stewart has endured considerable pain, tragedy and sadness over the past two seasons. Will he be able to recover and return to the Smoke of old, the same one who has three championships and 48 race wins in the Cup series?

Only time will tell. But if there’s anyone who can come back from what he’s gone through, Stewart can.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar’s Scott Dixon staying fit during lengthy time off

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During a regular racing schedule, five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing would spend much of his time between races at PitFit in Indianapolis.

The highly advanced workout facility on the northwest side of Indianapolis is run by noted sports trainer Jim Leo. His clientele includes IndyCar Series drivers and other athletes in the area.

In addition to the array of workout machines, Leo’s facility also has advanced equipment to test a driver’s reaction time. These range from a board with lights that rapidly flash, and a driver have to hit the board to turn them off. There are other tests drivers do to keep their skills sharp and reaction time focused.

Times have changed, though.

Indiana is under a statewide lockdown with the exception of essential services only. Instead of going to PitFit, Dixon is working out at his home on the north side of Indianapolis.

His reaction time is being tested by his wife, Emma, throw a tennis ball at him, changing the direction with each toss.

“I’ve gone back to old school, like tennis balls and Emma can drop them or throw them,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “As long as you keep up with basic cardio and lift weights and work on the neck muscles, that’s the harder part to get ready for. “As we get through this transition, we have 8-10 weeks before these things get lifted.

“I had already stopped going into Pit Fit last week. We had not been doing that for a while. Haven’t left the house for 13 days, now. We went to the grocery store once. The rest of the stuff has been delivered.

“We’re locked down, man, trying to do our best for everyone else.”

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Dixon’s home has an impressive array of workout equipment. That allows the 39-year-old racing legend to stay fit during this extended time off that won’t end until the last week of May at the earliest.

“I have most of the stuff I need at home,” Dixon explained. “Some of the reaction stuff, the D-2s and Synaptic machines plus some of the upper-body machines are pretty unique machines. Those are the machines that Jim Leo has at PitFit.

“As far as cycling, running, general weights, skiers and rollers, I have that at home.”

It seems like a lifetime ago when the world was normal. That was before the dreaded COVID-19 outbreak has literally sent society underground and locked in while a solution to this fatal virus is found.

Photo by Chris Graythen, Getty Images

Before this unexpected shutdown, Dixon would go into PitFit to work on specialized equipment on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He would do the rest of his physical workout at home.

“I started skipping that when we got home before the lockdown,” Dixon said. “Before the lockdown, Jim could have stayed open because he never has more than 10 people at once.

“Typically, he would have the drivers spaced out where Tony Kanaan and I would go in at 8 in the morning and Alexander Rossi and James Hinchcliffe would go in at 9:30 and then Zach Veach and Spencer Pigot and Charlie Kimball would go in around 11. There were only about five of us going in at once.”

Two weeks ago, Leo dropped off some equipment at Dixon’s house along with more instructions to focus on his workouts during the layoff.

Sacrifices are being made all throughout the world, including racing.

“You can’t be selfish,” Dixon said. “It sucks for the drivers, but it sucks a lot worse for a lot of other people. Luckily, the school the girls go to has e-learning. It’s school as usual on the computer from 8:30 to 3 and that has been seamless on that front.

“On a personal note, it’s nice to be home with the baby and bonding as well and that is great. But all of us wish everything was back to normal as soon as possible.”

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Dixon is the father of three, including young daughters Poppy (10), Tilly (8) and infant son, Kit.

This is a time to keep his family safe.

“You hear mixed messages about who is more at risk,” Dixon said. “Obviously, older people with underlying conditions. We’re a fairly healthy family, but still it sounds like something can trigger a pretty bad situation. It’s better to be safe than sorry so we are limiting our contact as fast as possible. The quicker everybody locks down, the quicker we will get through the situation. If we stay home, we will see a decline and hopefully get back to normal pretty quickly.

“It’s a new thing for everybody.”

For now, Dixon works out at home, while the girls continue their classes on the computer. Emma spends time with her infant son, Kit, while taking care of the family.

These days of working out at home will be important because once racing is scheduled to return, tentatively set for May 30 at Detroit, it will be flat-out, racing nearly every weekend.

There won’t be time-off in-between races.

“No, but everybody is having plenty of rest right now,” Dixon quipped. “It’s not what anybody wants. We all keep hoping everybody remains safe and healthy. It’s a difficult time for a lot of people and we’ve been very lucky that we don’t know anybody that has had an issue so far. Hopefully, that remains the same.

“Everybody is ready to go. We were ready to go at St. Pete. This will be welcomed greatly.

“Nothing is normal these days. I think what IndyCar and IMS did was probably the best of the situations. You never want to move the dates of the 500, but you always want the people to be relaxed enough they are going to come to the race, too.

“The way they have done the schedule is pretty cool. It gives them enough wiggle room now with Detroit being the kickoff. What is also fun is the July 4 doubleheader weekend at Indianapolis and St. Pete finishing the season.”

Once life returns to normal, depending on what the new normal will look like, race drivers and athletes will once again be in an area they know.

The difficult part of this, however, is nobody knows when the COVID-19 pandemic will end.

“The hard part right now is there are so many unknowns,” Dixon said. “That is what people hate. They could wrap their hands around two weeks, but it could be another six weeks. People will go crazy.

“That is what we are going through right now. The unknown. Nobody knows what the next step is.”

That is why Dixon has a message for all race fans to take these orders seriously.

“Stay safe. Stay away from people. Lock down. Get this period done with,” Dixon said. “Once we do that, hopefully we can crack on like normal and people can find fixes and therapies. As soon as everybody bunkers down, we will get through this sooner instead of later.

“Let’s get back to normal as quick as possible and get back to racing when we can.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500