HAMPTON, Ga. – Tony Stewart has suffered through thousands of press conferences in his career. Sometimes he’s forthcoming, sometimes he’s confrontational. But until Friday, he was always in control of the room and all in it.
Three weeks ago, Kevin Ward Jr. died in a violent accident involving Stewart’s sprint car at a small upstate New York track. Stewart vanished from the public eye, taking the next three races off. On Thursday, he made the decision to race once again, starting this weekend in Atlanta, and on Friday, he faced the cameras.
He entered the rest of his public life with eyes downcast and shoulders slumped, the whine of sprint car engines outside Atlanta Motor Speedway’s media center an ironic counterpoint. Stewart has never been the picture of health, but even on his scale he looked beaten, skin pale and eyes sunken. When he spoke, his voice cracked on his very first words.
“This has been one of the toughest tragedies I've ever had to deal with both professionally and personally,” he began. “This is something that will definitely affect my life forever. This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life.”
Stewart spoke in a solemn, fragile tone, a world removed from the cheerful smirk that characterized so many of his past press conferences. He indicated that he was thinking of and praying for Ward’s family members, acknowledging them by name. He thanked his colleagues and friends for their support. He explained his reasons for wishing to return to the track, and he asked for respect and understanding as he returned to competition.
Speaking a little less than three minutes, Stewart took no questions, a wise move on his part given the fact that the investigation of the incident is still open. Granted, Ontario County (N.Y.) police continue to assert that there is no indication of any criminal wrongdoing, but the investigation continues.
Stewart also did not discuss the accident in even the vaguest terms, and he did not specifically apologize to Ward’s family. Both of those were almost surely because of legal expediency rather than a lack of sympathy, likely the advice of lawyers seeking to avoid any additional risk arising from this tragedy.
Overall, however, it was a moving appearance, the only false note being the share-a-friend Coke bottle with “Tony” conspicuously turned toward the waiting TV cameras. There were no other advertisements on the podium or backdrop; in sponsor-obsessed NASCAR, that’s as rare as a vegan infield tailgate party.
Stewart had a fine line to walk in his statement, and that line will continue onward for the rest of his career. There are those who will proclaim, loudly, that to ever get behind the wheel of a race car again is disrespectful to Ward’s memory and his family. There’s an equally vocal contingent that believes Stewart should have raced his way through his grief from the start.
Stewart has plenty of friends in the garage; teammates Danica Patrick, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch all expressed gratitude that he was back in the garage and back behind the wheel. NASCAR itself called a favorable audible for Stewart, declaring him eligible for its postseason Chase should he win either this weekend or next, even though Stewart had not attempted to qualify the last three races.
That's unlikely to be an issue. It’s almost inconceivable that Stewart could in fact win a race this week or next, given the weight of emotion draped over him. Winning, indeed, would only bring a fresh onslaught of questions and scrutiny, whether it happens this weekend or years from now.
And so the man who’s made a career of doing whatever he wants, regardless of what people think, is now facing a career where anything he does will infuriate someone. For Stewart, then, the most comfortable place in the world will be behind the wheel, drowning out everything in the deafening roar of a motor.