The sheriff investigating the on-track accident involving Tony Stewart that resulted in the death of a fellow driver says there is no evidence of "criminal intent" on the part of the three-time NASCAR champion.
During a news conference Sunday, Ontario County Sheriff Philip C. Povero said Stewart has been cooperating with the ongoing investigation and that there is no evidence that Stewart purposely tried to hurt Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint-car race in New York on Saturday night.
Ward, 20, was struck and killed by Stewart's car when it appeared he tried to confront Stewart while on foot during a caution in a dirt-track race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park.
“[Stewart's] been interviewed and ... has made himself available again if it’s necessary,” Povero said.
Povero emphasized that video footage of the accident “is very important and crucial to our investigation" and that his department is looking for deeper analysis of the incident from people who are familiar with sprint-car racing. He said Stewart was driving 35-40 mph at the time of the incident.
“There are no foregone conclusions. .... We are looking for any information, any relevant evidence.”
Stewart, 43, did not compete in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen International on Sunday after being involved in the incident that claimed the life of Ward.
The manager for Stewart's racing team, Greg Zipadelli, told the Associated Press that the three-time NASCAR champion would not compete Sunday. Regan Smith drove Stewart's No. 14 car in the race.
Earlier Sunday morning, Zipadelli told reporters that Stewart would take part in the race, saying it was "business as usual." Zipadelli later told Fox Sports that Stewart is "going through a tough time, it's emotional for him."
NASCAR released a statement regarding Stewart's decision, saying, "We support Tony Stewart’s decision to miss today’s race."
Stewart released the following statement Sunday about the incident:
"There aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. It’s a very emotional time for all involved, and it is the reason I’ve decided not to participate in today’s race at WGI. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and everyone affected by this tragedy.”
Amateur video of the incident shows Ward stepping toward Stewart's car at the Lucas Oil SuperSprint feature race after it appears Stewart cut off his driving line and forced him into the wall, causing him to spin out.
Moments later, Stewart’s car makes contact with Ward and drags him several feet before Ward breaks away from the car and slides an additional 50 feet along the track. People in the crowd can be heard screaming during the incident.
A witness told the Associated Press that it appeared Ward was trying to confront Stewart. A video showed Ward standing to the right of Stewart's familiar No. 14 car, which seemed to kick out from the rear, swerving and hitting him.
“The next thing I could see, I didn't see [the other driver] anymore,” witness Michael Messerly said. “It just seemed like he was suddenly gone.”
Ward was pronounced dead at F.F. Thompson Hospital at 11:15 p.m., according to the Ontario County Sheriff's Office.
Ward's family released a statement on Sunday:
"We appreciate the prayers and support we are receiving from the community, but we need time to grieve and wrap our heads around all of this."
The incident happened around 10:30 p.m. at the exit for turn 2 during lap 14 of the 25-lap event, according to the sheriff's office. The race was under caution when Ward was hit.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
1:14 p.m.: The story has been updated with information about the ongoing sheriff's investigation of the incident.
12:31 p.m.: The story has been updated with a statement from Ward's family.
10:43 a.m.: The story has been updated with a statement from Stewart.
7:26 a.m.: The story has been updated with information that Tony Stewart has decided to not compete Sunday in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International. This story was originally published at 5:19 a.m.