By Letitia Stein
(Reuters) - NASCAR champion Tony Stewart dropped out of a race on Sunday, hours after fatally running over a driver at a dirt track in New York state, casting a shadow over one of the sport's most accomplished and highly paid drivers.
Stewart, 43, faced a wave of criticism on social media when it appeared he planned to compete in the Sprint Cup series at Watkins Glen International, with a team official telling media that he was proceeding with "business as usual."
A sheriff in upstate New York investigating the death of the 20-year-old racer said they had not found so far any evidence of criminal intent in Saturday's incident and that Stewart was cooperating with authorities.
"At this very moment, there are no facts in hand that would substantiate or support a criminal charge, or indicate criminal intent on the part of any individual," Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero told a news conference on Sunday.
Stewart, a three-time NASCAR champion, is one of the few drivers who co-owns his team, Stewart-Hass Racing, a four-car outfit whose drivers include female standout Danica Patrick.
In the relatively low-stakes and chaotic race, Stewart hit Kevin Ward, Jr., who stepped out of his car and onto the track as he seemed to gesture toward Stewart after the NASCAR veteran appeared to have clipped his car and caused it to spin out of the race, according to videos of the incident posted online.
“There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.," Stewart said in a statement. "It’s a very emotional time for all involved."
Stewart is NASCAR's fourth-highest paid driver, with an estimated $17.3 million in earnings this year, according to Forbes. The unmarried race car driver lives in his native Columbus, Indiana.
His sponsors include Bass Pro Shops, Mobil 1, Coca-Cola and Chevrolet.
STEWART SOUGHT COMEBACK
NASCAR, which was not involved in the Saturday racing event, endorsed Stewart's withdrawal." We support Tony Stewart's decision to miss today's race and we will continue to respect the process and timeline of the local authorities and will continue to monitor this situation moving forward," NASCAR officials said. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing is the sanctioning body for what has grown into one the most popular sports in the United States, overseeing more than 1,200 races that are broadcast in more than 150 countries and in 20 languages. More Fortune 500 companies participate in NASCAR than any other sport, according to the racing body.
Stewart was looking for a strong performance in Sunday's race, following injuries that forced him to miss the second half of the 2013 NASCAR season.
Stewart began his racing career on dirt tracks and enjoys going back to his roots, despite the modest pay compared to the high-profile and big-money NASCAR circuit.
Known for his tempestuous behavior, Stewart has occasionally gotten into fights with others drivers, including a shoving match with Joey Logano at the Auto Club 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Fontana, Calif., last year.
Among his most celebrated accomplishments was racing in 2001 in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina in the same day, becoming the first and only driver to date to successfully complete all 1,100 miles (1,800 km) in what is popularly known in racing circles as Double Duty.
The fatal crash occurred late Saturday night at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park, about 25 miles southeast of Rochester, according the Ontario Sheriff.
Stewart also was involved in an accident at Canandaigua in July of last year that injured another driver.
Ward was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. A New York state resident, his website notes that he has been racing since the age of four, when he began running go-karts at local tracks.
(Reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Mary Milliken and Marguerita Choy)