There is no doubt the situation surrounding Tony Stewart and the tragic accident Aug. 9 at Canandaigua Motorsports Park has left a lasting mark on the racing community and Stewart-Haas Racing, in particular.
The team that Stewart co-owns has not missed a step in its preparation for the last two weekends’ NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, considering the highly emotional situation that surrounds the team.
For the second straight weekend, Stewart did not race the No. 14 Chevrolet due to his involvement in the sprint car incident that claimed the life of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr.
On Friday at Michigan International Speedway, Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood said Stewart was "dealing with quite a bit of grief" over the situation, and did not provide a timetable for his return, saying the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion would ultimately be the one to make the decision on his return.
Veteran Jeff Burton filled in for Stewart from the outset of the weekend, but an issue with a broken tailpipe sent the No. 14 Chevrolet to the garage early.
The team was able to send Burton back on the track, but he finished the day 37th, 24 laps to down to race winner Jeff Gordon. This marked the second week in a row the No. 14 team has had a disappointing finish without its driver at the helm.
However, the most difficult part of the weekend for Burton was not the disappointing finish to Sunday’s race, but his concern that the human element of the Ward tragedy has been lost.
"These are people that we are talking about," Burton said. "You have a lot of conversations about the ‘what if’s’ and all this, but at the end of the day these are real people that are human beings and have feelings, and I think a lot of times we forget that. We talk about people like they are robots, and they are not; they are human beings. Just listening to some of the misinformation and people speculating about stuff, I just thought it was a travesty in a lot of ways. Ultimately all that really weighed on me, knowing that we had two families, at least two families just in agonizing pain and really not being able to do anything about it.
"Racing is a community," Burton continued. "I don’t know the Ward family at all, but I know that they raced, and that means that I share something in common with them. The racing community cares about each other even if they don’t know you they still care about you. I think that is what we saw this week. Of course everybody in this garage knows Tony (Stewart). Tony doesn’t beat his chest and talk about the things he does for people. We know it, we see it, but nobody else does. (Dale) Earnhardt (Sr.) was like that; Earnhardt didn’t want anybody to know the things he did for people. That is how Tony is and … a lot of people, they only know Tony because he threw a helmet. They only know Tony because he got mad. Well, hell, I get mad, too. I just hate people jumping to conclusions."
Following his second-place finish Sunday at Michigan, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick echoed some of Burton’s sentiments, saying it has "been a difficult week" and the most difficult part has been the media portrayal of the incident.
Standing up for his team owner and close friend for the second time in as many weeks, Harvick said it would be tough to find a racer in the country who would deliberately hit another driver outside of the car.
"It’s an absolute tragic accident that has happened on both sides of the fence," said Harvick. "You have one young man who is dead. You’ve got a guy that we know and are part of an organization that is just getting a lot of just crazy press.
"I’ve known Tony Stewart for a long time. You look, you know, you see what happened. I still don’t believe that he even knew that he ran into that car. I know for sure that Tony Stewart is not going to run over somebody that’s on a racetrack. I don’t think there’s anybody in this garage that would. It would be hard to find somebody in the racing world that could … just run somebody over.
"You have just a lot of unknowledgeable people reporting on a situation that know absolutely nothing about racing. It’s just really unfortunate, the perception that has been given to him.
"I know he’ll stay strong and fight and he’ll get the right people and do all the right things," Harvick continued. "That’s the part that’s bothered me the most: It’s just the poor representation on the media side for him."
This week, Stewart-Haas Racing is preparing for another Sprint Cup Series event — Saturday night’s race at Bristol — while still shrouded in controversy and uncertainty.