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As probe begins, Stewart steps away from the track

Stewart Cooperating With Investigators

By JOHN WAWROW and DAN GELSTON

CANANDAIGUA, N.Y. (AP) - The collision was as common as any in racing. Kevin Ward Jr.'s car spun twice like a top, wheels hugging the wall, before it plopped backward on the dimly lit dirt track.

In a sport steeped with bravado, what happened next was another familiar, but treacherous, move: Wearing a black firesuit and black helmet, the 20-year-old Ward unbuckled himself, climbed out of the winged car into the night and defiantly walked onto the track at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.

He gestured, making his disgust evident with the driver who triggered the wreck with a bump: three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart.

Ward, a relative unknown compared to NASCAR's noted swashbuckler, was nearly hit by another passing car as he pointed with his right arm in Stewart's direction. As he confronted Stewart in his passing car, disaster struck.

Ward was standing to the right of Stewart's familiar No. 14 car, which seemed to fishtail from the rear and hit him. According to video and witness accounts, Ward's body was sucked underneath the car and hurtled through the air before landing on his back as fans looked on in horror.

Ward was killed. Stewart, considered one of the most proficient drivers in racing, dropped out of Sunday's NASCAR race at Watkins Glen, hours after Saturday's crash. And the sport was left reeling from a tragedy that could have ripple effects from the biggest stock car series down to weeknight dirt track racing.

"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.

Authorities questioned the 43-year-old Stewart once on Saturday night and went to Watkins Glen to talk to him again Sunday. They described him as "visibly shaken" after the crash and said he was cooperative.

On Sunday, Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said that investigators also don't have any evidence at this point in the investigation to support criminal intent. But he also said that criminal charges have not been ruled out.

Investigation Ongoing At Canandaigua

The crash raised several questions: Will Ward's death cause drivers to think twice about on-track confrontations? Did Stewart try and send his own message by buzzing Ward, the young driver, only to have his risky move turn fatal? Or did Ward simply take his life into his own hands by stepping into traffic in a black firesutsuit on a dark track?

The only one who may have that answer is Stewart.

David S. Weinsten, a former state and federal prosecutor in Miami who is now in private practice, said it would be difficult to prove criminal intent.

"I think even with the video, it's going to be tough to prove that this was more than just an accident and that it was even culpable negligence, which he should've known or should've believed that by getting close to this guy, that it was going to cause the accident," he said.

The sheriff renewed a plea for spectators to turn over photos and videos of the crash. Investigators were reconstructing the accident and looking into everything from the dim lighting on a portion of the track to how muddy it was, as well as if Ward's dark firesuit played a role in his death, given the conditions.

Driver Cory Sparks, a friend of Ward's, was a few cars back when Ward was killed.

"The timing was unsafe," he said of Ward's decision to get out of his car to confront Stewart. "When your adrenaline is going, and you're taken out of a race, your emotions flare."

It's often just a part of racing. Drivers from mild-mannered Jeff Gordon to ladylike Danica Patrick have erupted in anger on the track at another driver. The confrontations are part of the sport's allure: Fans love it and cheer wildly from the stands. Stewart, who has a reputation for being a hothead nicknamed "Smoke," once wound up like a pitcher and tossed his helmet like a fastball at Matt Kenseth's windshield.

"I've seen it many times in NASCAR, where a driver will confront the other one, and a lot of times they'll try to speed past them. And that's what it appeared to me as if what Tony Stewart did, he tried to speed past Ward," witness Michael Messerly said. "And the next thing I could see, I didn't see Ward any more. It just seemed like he was suddenly gone."

The crash also raised questions about whether Stewart will continue with his hobby of racing on small tracks on the side of the big-money NASCAR races. He has long defended his participation in racing on tracks like the one where the crash happened, even as accidents and injury have put his day job in NASCAR at risk.

Saturday's crash came almost exactly a year after Stewart suffered a compound fracture to his right leg in a sprint car race in Iowa. The injury cost him the second half of the NASCAR season and sidelined him during NASCAR's important Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Stewart only returned to sprint track racing last month.

The crash site is the same track where Stewart was involved in a July 2013 accident that seriously injured a 19-year-old driver. He later took responsibility for his car making contact with another and triggering the 15-car accident that left Alysha Ruggles with a compression fracture in her back.

"Everybody has hobbies," he said last month, adding that "there are a lot of other things I could be doing that are a lot more dangerous and a lot bigger waste of time with my time off do than doing that."

Greg Zipadelli, competition director for Stewart-Haas Racing, said Stewart felt strongly he should not race after the wreck. Regan Smith replaced him in his car.

"We're racing with heavy hearts," Smith said.

Join the discussion

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fisherdude47 August 10 2014 at 11:58 AM

I feel sorry for the Ward family,, but the man knows you do not get out of your car during a race, and it was night, waring black such a tragic accident....You make your complaints when the race is over, not on the track out of your car during a race.

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14 replies
sylvabugg2 August 10 2014 at 12:15 PM

One of the cardinal rules is never leave your car while it's still on the track during a race. What a shame he did not follow this basic rule. The one I feel sorry for is Tony, because now he has to live with the fact that he struck and killed a man. Not really his fault, but a hard thing to live with all the same.

Flag Reply +87 rate up
7 replies
paulie August 10 2014 at 1:08 PM

AFTER WATCHING THE VIDEO IT IS VERY CLEAR >>> THAT TONY PURPOSELY THREW THE CAR IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION AWAY FROM THE DRIVER,... <<<
THE DRIVER KEPT COMING TOWARDS TONY AND OTHER CARS, TONY GUNNED IT THROWING THE CAR TO GET >>>AWAY FROM HIM NOT TOWRDS HIM,....<<< HAVING OVER 40 YEARS EXPIERIENCE BEING AROUND THESE CARS AND KNOWING THE DIFFERENCE,.. HE GUNNED IT IN AN ATTEMPT TO AVOID HIM,....THROWING THE REAR END AWAY.
TONY'S BAD TEMPER HAS NEVER DONE HIM JUSTICE IN THE PAST, BUT HE CLEARLY WAS NOT TRYING TO HIT HIM,... THAT YOUNG MAN WAS LETTING TESTOSTERONE GET IN THE WAY IN THE FORM OF STUPIDITY,...
SORRY BUT THAT'S THE TRUTH,...
CONDOLENCES TO THE FAMILY ANY LOSS OF ANY KIND IS ALWAYS TRAGIC,...
BUT HE SHOULD HAVE BEEN TAUGHT TO >>> STAY IN HIS CAR UNTIL RESCUE TEAMS COME AND GET YOU OUT OR YOU MAKE YOUR WAY OUT AND OUT OF HARMS WAY, OVER THE FENCE <<< >>> TONY DID NOT DO ANYTHING I HAVE NOT SEEN A HUNDRED TIMES BEFORE,... IF ANYTHING HE TRIED TO AVOID THIS " 20 YEAR OLD KID

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24 replies
tek_kat August 10 2014 at 12:22 PM

What the hell was he thinking? That was suicide for sure.. All this to tell someone off? He won't be doing this twice.. Heart goes out to the family and also to the person that hit him. He will live with that mans stupid decision for the rest of his life. People need to learn to chill out these days. To much unnecessary violence today.

Flag Reply +48 rate up
4 replies
mnbkny August 10 2014 at 12:16 PM

Watch the video. Kevin Ward Jr. purposefully walks into the middle of the track to challenge a... moving vehicle. Moving vehicles never lose in that situation. Sad way for Ward to learn that lesson. Don't try this at home, kids. Video: http://deadspin.com/reports-tony-stewart-ran-over-opposing-driver-during-1618893708

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8 replies
angelo65 August 10 2014 at 12:07 PM

Lawyer up Tony... It was clearly Ward's bad decisions at fault, but still.

Flag Reply +41 rate up
4 replies
slandrem August 10 2014 at 12:19 PM

This is a something he will live with the rest of his life. I cant believe a seasoned driver would even get out of his car on the tract, during a race, at night, road rag kills.

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5 replies
Dude August 10 2014 at 11:53 AM

Suicide by stock car.

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7 replies
Ray Hamilton August 10 2014 at 12:04 PM

It's sad, But every time you are in any Auto Races there's a chance this could happen. It's the price you pay for being in such a Sport. Blessings.

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5 replies
toppguyy August 10 2014 at 12:18 PM

he had to sleep on it????

Flag Reply +12 rate up
9 replies
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