Tony Stewart is often portrayed to great theatrical effect as one of NASCAR’s black-helmeted anti-heroes, a driver prone to blowing brain gaskets and smashing photographers’ cameras or rivals’ bumpers.
But Stewart is no cartoon character. The past three months have exposed his vulnerable side. His tumultuous career plunged to its nadir when he struck and killed a young driver in a racing accident in August but has climbed back to another peak for Sunday’s Sprint Cup climax at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he could win his second title as owner of Stewart-Haas Racing with driver Kevin Harvick among the final four contenders in the 400-mile finale.
Stewart’s lower lip quivered and his eyes grew moist for a fleeting moment Wednesday when he recalled the awful night of Aug. 9. On a small, dark, dirt track in upstate New York, Stewart hit Kevin Ward Jr., 20, who was dragged beneath the right rear wheel and thrown through the air before landing on his back. Ward had tangled with Stewart on the previous lap, got out of his disabled car and strode angrily down the banking of the Canandaigua Motorsports Park track to confront Stewart while the race continued under caution. One driver swerved to avoid Ward before Stewart crashed into him.
“It’s been the worst part of my life,” Stewart said. “I’m never going to forget what happened. It will never go away. Sometimes it comes back into my mind and it’s all I think about.”
After the accident, Stewart went into seclusion. He said he didn’t get out of bed, didn’t shower, barely ate.
“Just sat there for entire days on end asking questions and trying to come to terms with what happened and why it happened,” Stewart said.
A grand jury absolved Stewart of responsibility on Sept. 24 and the Ontario, New York, prosecutor revealed Ward was under the influence of marijuana at a level “enough to impair” during the race. But Ward’s mother, Pam, said in a statement that she still blamed Stewart, “who intentionally tried to intimidate Kevin by accelerating and sliding his car toward him, causing the tragedy.”
Stewart sat out the next three races and fell further out of contention in the Sprint Cup Series, in which he hasn’t won since Dover in June 2013. He devoted his energy to the role of team owner, helping longtime friend Harvick achieve a late-season rally, including a victory at Phoenix last week.
“To get here is something [co-owner] Gene [Haas] and I are really proud of,” Stewart said. “The speed and consistency have paid off. There are a lot of similarities between Kevin and I in driving styles and tempers. But it’s not about me. It’s about Kevin and the opportunity for him and the team.”
Stewart, 43, said he has had to make an effort to compartmentalize his personal torment from professional pressure.
“Part of the remedy is going back to work,” he said. “I’ve got a job to do and all I’m worrying about right now is finishing on a good note.”
The toll has added gray to Stewart’s coal-colored hair and pounds to his body in the 18 months since he flipped his sprint car in an Oskaloosa, Iowa, dirt-track race and broke his right leg so severely that doctors considered amputation. As he contemplated the past two seasons, the mix of emotions that flashed across his face captured the essence of one of NASCAR’s most complex personalities.
The driver nicknamed “Smoke” can be charming. He can be obnoxious. He can be recklessly cocky on the track and humbly philanthropic off it. He once threw his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s windshield. Jimmie Johnson recently said Stewart is one of the few courteous drivers left in the sport.
Stewart was somber when asked if he has changed as a result of his self-examination following Ward’s death.
“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I’m still a racer. I still want to race. I know that about myself.”
In the next moment, he was undiplomatically blunt when he mentioned his preference for books over “the junk on TV these days,” he said. “Entertainment has changed — people don’t have a clue.”
And then, standing near NASCAR’s silver checkered-flag trophy, his competitive side emerged as he recalled his wild 2011 victory in Homestead, when he had to finish first to win his third title.
“It’s down to one race for Kevin, too,” he said. “I have to smile. I see that look in his eye. I know exactly what that look means.”
Stewart endured criticism after the Ward accident, especially given his hot-headed history of altercations and feuds. It was difficult for both fans and critics of NASCAR to reconcile the fact that drivers who routinely take retaliatory risks during races claim they would never use their cars as weapons when there’s a fatality. Stewart was criticized again last month when he purposely backed into Brad Keselowski on pit road during a fracas in Charlotte. Stewart was fined $25,000 and Keselowski was fined $50,000.
“To me it’s worthless to pick sides,” Stewart said in September of those who accused him of trying to buzz Ward rather than avoid him. “His family’s in mourning. I’m in mourning. My family is in mourning. Instead of honoring a young man who had a promising racing career, people are picking sides. I just know in my heart that it was 100 percent an accident.”
Joe Gibbs, Stewart’s former boss, said Stewart was gratified by the way the “NASCAR family reached out to support him.”
“After a period of isolation, he returned to what he loves,” Gibbs said. “I remember when he raced for us, after somebody got hurt bad in a race, he walked into the office the next day and told me, ‘If anything happens to me in a race car, don’t you worry about it because this is my world, this is what I was born to do.’ I think next year he’ll come roaring back.”
Stewart grew up in Columbus, Indiana, idolizing A.J. Foyt. Whether he will continue dabbling in races in the sport’s minor leagues, on the small-town dirt tracks where he adores having fun, returning to his roots and mentoring young drivers, is something he will have to debate. In the past two years, he has been involved in three sprint car accidents — one fatal, one seriously injuring a 19-year-old driver and one that nearly cost him his leg.
This weekend, Stewart is back in the spotlight, gunning for a trophy from both inside and outside the cockpit. Three months ago he wondered whether he would ever want to step foot on a racetrack again.
“Winning would mean a lot to me because of my friendship with Tony and because they took a chance on creating this team from scratch,” Harvick said. “Everybody knows what Tony has gone through this year and last year. To put a good end on the story would be neat for me.”
Ford Championship Weekend schedule
All events are at Homestead-Miami Speedway (305-230-5000, 1 Ralph Sanchez Speedway Blvd, Homestead, FL 33035)
▪ Gates open at 11:30 a.m. and practices are from 11:30 a.m. until 6 p.m.
▪ NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying, 6:15 p.m. to 7:35 p.m.
▪ NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200 race, 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
▪ Gates open, 11:30 a.m. and practices are from noon until 4 p.m.
▪ NASCAR Nationwide Series qualifying, 1:15 p.m. to 2:35 p.m.
▪ NASCAR Nationwide Series Ford EcoBoost 300, 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.
▪ Gates open, 10 a.m.
▪ Fan area and activities — Coke Zero Fan Zone open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with various drivers appearing.
▪ NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400, 3 to 6:30 p.m.