Dale Jarrett. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Dale Jarrett spoke by phone Sunday night with Tony Stewart and offered several words to the Sprint Cup driver, less than 24 hours after Stewart was involved in a sprint car accident that killed a 20-year-old driver.
Jarrett, a NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee and ESPN/ABC auto racing analyst, explained that he did most of the talking in that conversation, but understood the weight of the situation on Stewart.
"My words to him were that, this is something where the racing can wait," Jarrett said. "You have to get your mind and feelings right. When you're ready to do this again, that's what you do. Nobody out there can tell him what to do. This is a decision that he has to make."
On Tuesday, neither Stewart nor Stewart-Haas racing had announced if Stewart would or would not drive in Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Qualifying for the Sprint Cup race is scheduled for 4:40 p.m. Friday. Stewart-Haas Racing spokesman Mike Arning said Monday in an email to The Blade that the decision to drive this weekend at MIS will solely be that of Stewart.
Amateur video footage posted online showed that Stewart’s sprint car collided with Ward’s car, which went into the wall at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park. With the race under caution, the 20-year-old Ward got out of his car and ran toward the middle of the dimly lit track, pointing as Stewart's car approached. Stewart appeared to maneuver his car out of the way as Ward stood on the track, but the car made contact with Ward.
Ward was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital at 11:15 p.m. on Saturday, 45 minutes after the accident. Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said Monday that no criminal charges were pending against Stewart, but an investigation remained open. An autopsy performed by the Ontario County coroner determined that Ward died of massive blunt trauma.
■ Sprint Cup qualifying, 4:40 p.m.
■ Truck Series Careers forVeterans 200, 12:30 p.m.
■ NASCAR Sprint Cup PureMichigan 400, 1 p.m.
Stewart hasn't spoken publicly about the situation, only releasing a statement Sunday afternoon in regards to the accident.
Stewart chose not to drive in the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, and Jarrett wouldn't put any timetable on when Stewart could possibly return to the Sprint Cup Series, either.
"It would be understandable if this took a year for that to happen," Jarrett said. "It would also be understandable that getting back in the car, even in some way, shape or form, even just to honor the young man, that would be therapeutic for Tony. But the fact of the matter is, it's when you can give 100 percent of your mind to drive. Tony's the only one who can figure that out. He understands he has a tremendous amount of support from his family and friends and his NASCAR family is behind him."
When asked about the Stewart situation Tuesday morning, Sprint Cup driver Brad Keselowski chose his words carefully.
“My take on it now is to let the dust settle for a little bit and let some cooler heads prevail,” Keselowski said. “There’s certainly a lot emotion, charged emotion on this topic, which is good in the sense that people care. I don't want to understate that. But it's obviously still very, very tragic, and still very, very fresh, a raw wound.
“The dust has to settle before anyone can have really a full opinion on it. Right now I don't even think everybody has all the facts. We have to get to that level first. For me, personally, it’s to have some respect to the family, get through their process, then kind of dig into the hows, whys, whats, and how we can possibly prevent something like that happening in the future.”
Ward’s death is the second notable death in as many years involving a NASCAR driver and sprint cars. Last June, Jason Leffler was killed in a sprint car accident in New Jersey.
"Something like this brings everyone closer," Jarrett said. "So many times, as you travel 38 weeks of the year and as you race, you take a lot of things for granted. You see these people, whether they're drivers, crew members, owners, and everyone it takes for all this to happen and you take it all for granted.
"But something like this is eye-opening. Things can happen and change in a hurry. It brings everyone closer because you start appreciating friends and loved ones, even though you're still fierce competitors once you're on the track."