Tony Stewart was the center of conversation Friday at Michigan International Speedway even though the three-time NASCAR champion was not at the track.
Stewart withdrew from this weekend's race after a fatal incident a week ago when his car struck and killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr. while Ward was on foot during a sprint-car race in upstate New York. Ward had climbed from his wrecked car, walked on the track and apparently was angrily gesturing toward Stewart when he was struck by Stewart's car.
Stewart's race team said Friday he was grieving at an undisclosed location and had not decided when to return. It's the second consecutive NASCAR race he will miss since the incident.
Stewart, 43, has not been charged with any wrongdoing; an investigation by the Ontario County sheriff's office is ongoing.
In the meantime, NASCAR on Friday implemented a new rule sharply drivers' ability to walk on a race track after their car is disabled. Although the fatal incident in New York did not occur in a NASCAR-sanctioned race, NASCAR took the step in response to the event.
"This is one of those times where we look outside our sport," Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, said at a news conference at Michigan International. The incident "was obviously something that everybody paid attention to" and the rule "is on the heels of that."
NASCAR drivers have been known to climb from their wrecked cars, stand on the track and gesture at rival drivers. Under the new rule, drivers generally are to stay in their cars until safety crews direct them to an ambulance or elsewhere unless the drivers face an emergency situation, such as a fire or smoke inside their cars.
Kyle Larson, a Cup driver who came up through the sprint-car ranks, said, "I'm sure you [will] still see people get out and point and stuff, but I'm sure they won't venture too much away from their own race car from now on."
Other NASCAR drivers on Friday expressed their condolences to Ward's family and noted the heated public debate about who might have been at fault in Ward's death, a debate fueled by a graphic, widely seen amateur video of the incident.
"I watched the video many, many times myself trying to understand it," four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said.
His teammate Jimmie Johnson, a six-time Cup champion, said the incident was "certainly a hot button for different sides" but that he believed the incident "was completely an accident. Once Tony is able to talk, or does talk, I think a lot of us and many people out there will feel better hearing his side of the situation."
Johnson said he's tried to contact Stewart but hasn't heard back. "I'd imagine there's still a lot going on, and I'd assume he's being advised to keep comments to a minimum right now with all the legal things that are out there pending," Johnson said.
Johnson also said he was concerned about "the pain and sorrow that the Ward family and friends are going through. It's such a sad, sad set of circumstances."
Brett Frood, executive vice president of Stewart's team, Stewart-Haas Racing, told reporters that "it's been an emotional week for [Stewart]" and that it "will be up to Tony when he's ready to get back in the car."
"It was a tragic accident and he's dealing with quite a bit of grief," Frood said, adding that Stewart "is surrounded right now by his closest friends and family."
By not qualifying and racing this weekend, Stewart appeared likely to become ineligible for NASCAR's Chase for the Cup title playoff. But Frood said "the Chase is of the lowest priority as it relates to Tony right now."
Veteran driver Jeff Burton is filling in for Stewart this weekend, and Friday he qualified Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet in the 27th starting spot in the 43-car field for Sunday's Pure Michigan 400. Gordon won the pole position with a track-record qualifying speed of 206.558 mph on the two-mile Michigan oval.
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