What started as a deeply emotional race for Tony Stewart ended prematurely when a blown tire cut short his return to NASCAR.
Stewart came back to competition Sunday for the first time since his car struck and killed another driver on August 9.
The crowd at the Oral-B USA 500 erupted in cheers as Stewart was introduced. But after just 172 of 325 laps at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, his front right tire blew, and Stewart’s car smacked the wall on Turn 2.
In the end, Kasey Kahne won the race and clinched a spot in the “Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup” playoff. Matt Kenseth came in second, and Denny Hamlin finished third.
But many thoughts were with Stewart and Kevin Ward Jr., the 20-year-old driver who was killed at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York.
Stewart declined to speak to a reporter after Sunday’s race. But he spoke to the media briefly Friday about Ward’s death.
“This has been one of the toughest tragedies I’ve ever had to deal with, both professionally and personally,” Stewart said. “And this is something that will definitely affect my life forever.”
Spectator video from the night of Ward’s death shows two cars coming out of a turn, with Stewart’s No. 14 car sliding up the track toward Ward’s No. 13 car. The two cars get close and appear to make contact before Ward’s car hits the wall and spins out.
Ward gets out of his crashed car and walks on the track toward the race cars, which had slowed for a yellow flag. Ward points a finger and appears to be yelling. One car swerves to avoid Ward on the half-mile dirt track.
Stewart’s car passes close to Ward, and it appears that its right rear tire hits him. Authorities said Ward died of “massive blunt trauma.”
Stewart withdrew from the NASCAR race in New York’s Watkins Glen the day after Ward died. He also missed races in Michigan and Tennessee.
New York authorities have been investigating the fatal crash. Ontario County Sheriff Philip C. Povero has said there was no evidence that a crime had been committed.
Ward, from Port Leyden, New York, was in his fifth season in the Empire Super Sprints series. He began racing when he was 4, running go-kart events. When he was 12, he moved to the faster sprint cars.
His father blames Stewart for hitting his son.
“Apparently, Tony Stewart was the only one driving out there who didn’t see him,” the father said, according to Syracuse.com.
Stewart said that he wants Ward’s parents and sisters “to know that every day I’m thinking about them and praying for them.”
While the incident hit him hard, Stewart said he knows “that the pain and the mourning that Kevin Ward’s family and friends are experiencing is something that I can’t possibly imagine.”