Stewart’s cantankerousness also extends to his driving style. Whereas Johnson is cool and calculating, often hanging back in the field and saving his best for the final laps, Stewart drives the paint off his car from the moment the green flag waves. And he doesn’t take kindly to people not playing by the rules, or at least the rules as he interprets them. (Rule No. 1: If my car is faster than yours, get out of my way, or expect a love tap on your rear bumper.) This, too, is old school. In a way, Stewart is the more natural heir to Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s “Intimidator” style of racing than Earnhardt’s own son, the beloved Dale Jr. (Earnhardt Sr., of course, was killed in a tragic on-track accident in 2001.) This makes Stewart exciting to watch, but also a frustrating driver to support: I’ve been to several races where he has taken himself out of contention by getting caught up in some petty competition in the early going of a 300-lap race. I’ve also seen him dazzle with sublime driving. Five years ago, I went to Watkins Glen, the same race he thankfully withdrew from on Sunday morning, to see him compete in one of the two road courses on the NASCAR circuit. Unlike the usual ovals, road courses call on a different set of driving skills, and almost balletic footwork between the gas and brake. Often it’s lesser-known drivers with a lot of open-wheel experience who carry the day in these oddball events. (The otherwise middling driver Marcos Ambrose has taken the last two.) But in 2009, Stewart danced to victory, for a record fifth time at the track.*
Stewart is old school in another way: He always wants to be racing. This, too, is attractive to Stewart’s fans: Unlike some of the more buff and bouffanted drivers on NASCAR’s premier circuit, Stewart remembers his roots, and loves to compete on dirt tracks in small towns where there’s nothing at stake for him but pride. It’s as if Carmelo Anthony, between Knicks games, played pick-up on the Red Hook courts.
As that Carmelo analogy suggests, Stewart’s extracurricular racing makes no sense whatsoever. He is an owner and driver with millions of dollars riding on his ability to compete in NASCAR, and these other races can only imperil that enterprise. Last year, Stewart suffered severe injuries in just this kind of sprint race, breaking his leg so badly that he missed half the NASCAR season; perhaps as a result of that injury, he has also languished in the standings this year. But of course the willingness to race sprint cars in a little town on the eve of a big NASCAR event, and to bring the same competitive drive to that race as he does to the big-money ones, is what makes Stewart who he is.
There is no doubt that Stewart can be a jerk. There is no doubt that he is a short-tempered competitor. I have seen him wreck cars—his own and others—because he believes some unwritten principle of racing, some apocryphal code dating back to Junior Johnson or his hero A.J. Foyt, has been violated. But he’s also a man with a deep understanding of racing and an abiding love for it. I can’t imagine him jeopardizing either the sport or his ability to compete in it by willfully committing an unspeakably heinous act. For all his gruffness, I don’t believe that even in his deepest rage he would want to hurt a fellow driver.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, Greg Zipadelli, the competition director for Stewart’s team, said that the driver would race as scheduled—that it was “business as usual,” a statement he’ll surely come to regret if he doesn’t already. A NASCAR spokesman, too, said that “everything that's been made available to us at this time would not preclude [Stewart] from participating in this event here today.” Thankfully, Stewart and his team changed their minds, with Zipadelli saying “it’s an emotional time right now.” (Update, Aug. 10, 2014, 2:30 p.m.: On Sunday afternoon, Stewart issued a statement on Ward's death. It reads: "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 Watkins Glen. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and everyone affected by this tragedy.")
A grim irony of Saturday night’s race is that Ward was demonstrating the same fiery commitment to winning that is Stewart’s signature. Walking out onto a race track, even under caution, is an exceptionally dangerous thing to do, and not something you see all that often. The last time I saw it was two years ago, during the August NASCAR race at Bristol, when Stewart, having been wrecked by Matt Kenseth, stormed onto the track and hurled his helmet at his opponent’s oncoming stock car.
I’d like to believe that Stewart, on a Saturday night in Canandaigua, New York, competing in a minor-league race for the love of the sport, would have seen something of himself in Ward. I’d also like to believe that Stewart just didn’t see Ward at all, until it was too late.
Correction, Aug. 11, 2014: This article misspelled the first name of NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose. (Return.)