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Tony Stewart back to racing: Did NASCAR handle Kevin Ward’s death right?

Patrik JonssonThe Christian Science Monitor

Did NASCAR make the right decision in allowing one of its best stock-car racers, No. 14 Tony Stewart, to return to racing this weekend at Atlanta despite an ongoing criminal investigation into his role in the death of sprint car racer Kevin Ward, on Aug. 9?

Mr. Stewart, whose sprint car struck and killed Ward, who was on foot, after the two had an on-track altercation, has declined to race for three weeks, dealing with “sadness and pain,” as he said Friday. Police in New York are two weeks away from finalizing an investigation into whether Stewart may be criminally liable for Ward’s death.

On Friday, Stewart, whose racing passion and occasional temper has pushed him to become one of the sport’s best and fastest drivers, struggled with his emotions as he read a hand-written statement.

“I've taken the last couple of weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family and also to cope with the accident in my own way,” Stewart said. “It's given me time to think about life and how easy it is to take it for granted. … [B]eing back in the car this week with my racing family will help me get through this difficult time.”

Debate about whether Stewart could have done more to avoid Ward has become emblematic of some of NASCAR’s rowdy Southern roots, the result of aberrant passions unloosened by the roar of engines – what sports radio host Colin Cowherd called an “eye-for-an-eye” Southern culture.

So far, police in New York have found no evidence of criminal intent, even though some analysts have said it appeared that Stewart could have done more to avoid Ward, who was yelling and pointing his finger at Stewart’s car. But the investigation is not over.

NASCAR defended its decision to allow Stewart to keep trying to win the sport championship, the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“We take the current circumstances that we are dealt with and make what we hope to be the best absolute conclusion,” NASCAR President Mike Helton said.

To critics, the decision to grant Stewart a medical waiver so he could continue to compete for the sport championship – and draw crowds – suggested that the sport too easily glosses over its dangers. To add drama, Stewart has to win either this weekend in Atlanta or next week in Richmond to make NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.

“NASCAR is risking having a driver in the Chase who could face criminal charges,” writes Bob Pockrass, in Sporting News. “It would be a huge black eye for NASCAR if Stewart is charged. Out of respect for the criminal investigation, NASCAR could have said it would not grant the waiver.”

Other NASCAR drivers have returned to the track after being involved in crashes that killed someone else, but none has returned after striking someone on foot.

The impact of Stewart’s decision to return could have consequences more broadly for the sport and also his garage, given that most sponsorship deals have “moral turpitude” clauses that allow corporations to dissolve partnerships.

"A lot of [the reaction from sponsors] is going to be determined [by whether it’s ruled] an accident or a criminal charge," Ed Kiernan, president of the New York-based Engine Shop marketing agency, told USA Today. "That's going to weigh in the brands' decisions."

Meanwhile, it was clear to many NASCAR observers that Stewart carries the ultimate burden in the wake of Ward’s death – whether on the track or off.

As Stewart practiced for the first time since Ward’s death on Friday, “it was evident that the monsoon of sadness had not ended,” wrote ABC Sports’ Ed Hinton. “He is a man whose life is bent over, bowed, still overwhelmed.”