Monday September 1st, 2014

Three weeks. That’s the appropriate amount of time to take off from work after you’ve killed somebody -- or so we learned last weekend. That¹s how long Tony Stewart stepped away from his job as part-owner and ace driver for Stewart-Haas Racing before returning to the track for Sunday’s Oral-B USA 500.

It was the NASCAR superstar’s first race since fatally running over a 20-year-old pro-am racer named Kevin Ward Jr. on a dimly lit dirt track in upstate New York. And judging from the reactions around Atlanta Motor Speedway last weekend, you would’ve thought the three-time Sprint Cup champion had been away for three years.

Grandstand spectators cheered him vociferously during his pre-race introduction and parade lap. The commentators on ESPN, which televised the race, didn’t so much report on his return as celebrate it, treating the two-minute statement he made on Friday explaining his absence -- wherein he thanked his supporters, extended his prayers to the Ward family and said absolutely nothing about what went so terribly wrong that night -- as if it were the Gettysburg Address.

Watch: Stewart addresses media for first time since fatal on-track incident

Stewart’s peers in the garage welcomed him back as if he was the one who had lost the loved one and not, you know, the one who had taken someone else’s away. “I’m glad he’s back,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. The fact Stewart bombed out of the Atlanta race early, after subjecting his car to a vicious round of battering, hardly dampened the mood. After the race Stewart’s crew chief, Chad Johnson, told reporters: “I wish we could have had a better effort and a better finish for him." Stewart exited without addressing the media.

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Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy leaves many unanswered questions

The empathy bubble around Stewart in Atlanta was so thick, in fact, you could almost forget about the people suffering so much outside of it -- Ward’s family and friends. Their boy, a fiery Sprint car racer in Stewart’s mold, has been buried for two weeks, but the investigation into his death remains as unresolved as ever. The most Ontario County (N.Y.) Sheriff Philip Povero had in the way of an update sounds like an attempt to stall for time; last Friday he said it would be another two weeks before his office had any further developments.

The more law enforcement dithers, the more Stewart looks like the victim in all this, and the more his enablers take the license to treat him that way. Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, one of Stewart's primary sponsors, said, “It made my heart ache to see him so devastated by this incident,” and described Stewart as “one of the most compassionate and kind-hearted individuals I have ever met.”

NASCAR was even more understanding, to a somewhat surprising degree. Two weeks after recognizing Ward’s unnecessary loss by passing a rule prohibiting drivers from exiting their cars for any reason other than their own safety, NASCAR granted Stewart an exemption allowing him to continue pursuing a berth in the Sprint Cup’s 16-driver, 10-race playoff series -- the Chase for the Championship.

Ordinarily, three weeks away from racing would’ve resulted in a playoff disqualification for Stewart, whose winless 2014 and 26th place in the standings make him ineligible for any of the two remaining playoff spots up for grabs. Kasey Kahne booked a spot in the Chase by capturing his first checkered flag of the season in Atlanta, and runner-up Matt Kenseth clinched on points.

But to hear NASCAR president Mike Helton tell it, whatever offense Stewart committed -- unintentional or otherwise -- was outside the league’s jurisdiction. “Most everyone in this room understands at NASCAR, our effort, our scope of responsibility and authority is limited to the NASCAR community," he said.
 

This, of course, was after Helton heralded Stewart as “a great asset to NASCAR.” It’s no wonder that two weeks ago at Michigan, more than a week after Ward’s passing, SHR executive vice president Brett Frood called the No. 14 car’s playoff chances “the lowest priority as it as it relates to Tony.” The fix, it seems, was already in.

That’s not news. That’s sports, where the biggest stars can do no wrong, especially when their crimes are against humanity, regardless if they’re caught in the act. CCTV catches Baltimore Ravens tailback Ray Rice dragging his unconscious then-fiancée (and eventual wife), knocked out by his own hand, from an Atlantic City casino elevator; the NFL suspends him for two games. (NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted the league erred in Rice's punishment and has since increased the penalty for a first-time offense to six games and a lifetime ban for a second offense). Smartphone video catches Stewart running over a fellow racer; he skips three races because he, not NASCAR, feels it’s right. Never mind that as an owner of one of the Cup series’ two four-car teams, Stewart should probably be held to a higher standard.

It’s only when a sports star engages in behavior that a league deems self-destructive that the punishments start to stiffen. Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon is caught smoking marijuana -- a drug that has been decriminalized for medicinal use in 23 states, and for recreational use in two -- and the NFL bans him for a season.

Two years ago, Sprint Cup driver AJ Allmendinger was cited for taking Adderall, in violation of the NASCAR’s substance-abuse program. NASCAR suspended him for two months, a penalty that cost him the support of his sponsors and a gig driving for Roger Penske. Mind you, this is the same league that pockets advertising dollars from 5-Hour Energy, Monster and once featured a team sponsored by Red Bull. Apparently, they’re great assets to the sport, too.

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SI Vault: Road Rage: Tony Stewart can handle everything -- except himself

It took almost four years for Allmendinger, a rising star before NASCAR made an example out of him, to rescue his career. Stewart? He can’t afford to stay away from the track for too long because, at 43, he has no wife or kids to go home to -- or so the argument goes. For him, racing isn’t a career. It’s a birthright.

ANDERSON: Life and death in the heart of American racing

The challenge of competition is what keeps him going, and on Sunday he faced many. After starting 12th and briefly challenging the race leaders, he hit the wall twice, blew a right front tire out and headed back toward the garage by lap 174.

Stewart can still make the playoffs with a win in the Cup series’ regular-season finale Saturday at Richmond, but that appears highly unlikely given that he’s finished in the top five only twice this year and last reached Richmond’s victory lane 12 years ago. Another shutout next week would put Stewart that much closer to a professional rock-bottom: the first time in his 16-year NASCAR career that he failed to notch at least one victory in a season.

Still, even if that scenario came to pass, it would be the closest Stewart has ever come to ignominy. As long as he has the fire to compete and the enablers to help him do so, he’ll never run out of fresh starts. It’s just too bad Ward can’t say the same.

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