KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — Slowly and somberly, Tony Stewart is trying his best to find his new normal.
He may never again be the “Smoke” the racing world knew before Aug. 9, the night a sprint car he was driving struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. at an upstate New York dirt track.
The three-time NASCAR champion was fiery on the track, so quick-witted he never lost a verbal spat, and a larger-than-life personality throughout the garage.
Stewart, without a doubt, was the heart and soul of NASCAR.
Now, some seven weeks after Ward’s death, the driver affectionaly referred to as “The People’s Champion” is struggling to find his footing. Stewart spent three weeks in seclusion at his Indiana home, and though he returned to racing Aug. 31, he’s been a shell of his former self.
He’s incapable of hiding when he’s having a tough day, he wears his emotions all over his body, and he’s not yet comfortable sliding back into his old, familiar routines. Stewart loved racing and women and a good practical joke, and now struggles to relax enough to even smile in public.
It made Monday a huge step for Smoke, who held his first news conference since a grand jury decided last week not to charge him in Ward’s death. Aside from a statement he read when he returned to the track at Atlanta and an interview last week with The Associated Press, Stewart had remained silent since Ward’s death.
But he knew avoiding the questions was one of the many things preventing him from getting on with his life.
So he sat down in front of a sterile gray backdrop at Stewart-Haas Racing wearing jeans, sneakers and a shirt void of any sponsor logos. He took 29 questions over 36 minutes about his grief, his change in priorities and his future in racing.
He tried twice at small jokes — the room laughed — but Stewart didn’t smile. He can’t grasp what’s appropriate right now, has no idea if anything will ever be the same.
“I honestly think every day, things will get better, and things will get easier. And I think it will for Kevin’s family as well.
“Time heals,” he said. “I don’t know that it will ever be normal again, but (I’ll) find a place to settle into and (I’ll) do the best (I) can.
“Whether I ever get back to (normal) or not, hopefully through this I will somehow be a better person. That’s all I can hope for.”
When he was done, Stewart exited out the back and headed to nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway for a two-day test with his three SHR teammates.
That’s the normal he needs. Stewart needs to be with his team, needs to be in a race car, needs to return to a routine. After four below-average races in his return, he finally turned a corner Sunday at Dover — his 14th-place finish was his best since the middle of July.
“We’ve still got some work to do,” crew chief Chad Johnston radioed Stewart on the final lap, “(but) P-14 is a far cry from what we’ve had the last couple weeks. So we’ll build on that and go to next week.”
Did a more focused effort have anything to do with the weight of a possible criminal charges being lifted four days earlier? Stewart doesn’t know. He doesn’t think so, but he likely doesn’t realize how miserable he’s looked outside of his race car.
He says both his heart and his head are into his job, but Sunday was the first race in which it showed. He doesn’t think a 14th-place finish is “anything to brag about,” but realizes his wins will come in curious shapes and sizes going forward.
“I think at this point in my career as a driver, when you make that decision to put the helmet on, you have to know in your heart that you’re ready to go, you’re ready to do it,” he said.
Now he must navigate his way back into society, something he’s avoided for seven weeks. He admitted he’s “let my team down” in not being engaged with teammates Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick as he’s grieved, and a schedule once so packed with appearances and autograph sessions has been wiped clean.
It’s made time stand still on too many days, and after facing a room full of reporters on Monday, he believed he was ready to resume the off-track commitments that come with his job.
“I think that’s another step of making forward progress, getting back to trying to resume what was the best of a normal life before this,” he said.
Nobody knows if he’ll ever be his old self again. Everyone hopes a version of the old Smoke will come back, but it’s also possible any changes will be for the better.
Although his charity, compassion and generosity rank at the top of NASCAR, Stewart could be prickly, moody and mean. He kept people at arm’s length, made poor personal choices and never seemed capable of finding the happiness he craves.
Perhaps the new Smoke will indeed be different, but in a good way.
“I want to be happy again and find peace,” he said last week in his AP interview. “It’s easy to get so focused on certain goals in life that you just forget about other things in life that are important — your friends, your family, your relationships. This has put a lot bigger emphasis on things that you’ve not necessarily put a lot of emphasis on in the past.”