By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- The death of 20-year-old driver Kevin Ward Jr., fatally injured when he was hit by a winged Sprint Car driven by Tony Stewart on Saturday night at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park, cast a somber mood over Watkins Glen International on Sunday morning.
And, ultimately, it led to Stewart's withdrawal from competition in Sunday's Cheez-It 355 at the Glen, the 22nd NASCAR Sprint Cup Series of the season, with his seat in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to be filled by Nationwide Series regular Regan Smith.
After a racing incident in which Ward and Stewart were battling on the half-mile dirt oval approximately 50 miles northwest of WGI -- a race for position that ended with Ward spinning and hitting the outside wall -- Ward climbed from his car between Turns 1 and 2, advanced toward Stewart's car and began gesturing.
Amateur video of the incident shows Ward being struck by the right side of Stewart's car and knocked back toward the outside wall, where Ward lay motionless as track safety workers gathered around him. Ward was transported by ambulance to Thompson Health and was pronounced dead on arrival.
At 10:15 a.m. Sunday, Stewart-Haas vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli appeared in the WGI media center to announce that Stewart would not participate in the Cup race.
"We know that it's just an unbelievable tragedy," Zipadelli said. "Our hearts go out to, obviously, Kevin's family ... thoughts and prayers. This is a very tough, very emotional time for everybody -- his family, our family, Stewart-Haas, Tony Stewart. With that being said, we feel that, as a group, Tony will not drive today.
"Regan Smith is on his way up. NASCAR has approved for him to get in the race car today. They're going to do everything they can to help us expedite getting the seat and (getting) him comfortable. That's kind of what we're working on this morning and trying to get executed, get Regan here and obviously anything we can do for Tony and anybody else ... like I said, it's an emotional time right now."
Because of the driver change, Smith must start from the rear of the field in Sunday's race.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and fellow competitors of Kevin Ward Jr.," NASCAR said in a statement released Sunday morning. "We support Tony Stewart's decision to miss today's race and we will continue to respect the process and timeline of the local authorities and will continue to monitor this situation moving forward."
On Saturday night, according to Ontario (N.Y.) County sheriff Philip C. Povero, Stewart cooperated fully with authorities after the incident and was "upset" and "shaken." Though the death continues to be investigated as an on-track incident, it is not being pursued as a criminal matter, Povero said.
On Sunday morning, Stewart's representatives released the following statement on behalf of the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver, who was scheduled to start 13th in Sunday's race at the Glen:
"A tragic accident took place last night during a sprint car race in which Tony Stewart was participating. Tony was unhurt, but a fellow competitor lost his life. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. We're still attempting to sort through all the details and we appreciate your understanding during this difficult time."
Though Zipadelli told reporters early Sunday morning that Stewart would race, those plans changed.
"We gave Tony some time to sleep on it and met with him this morning, and he feels strongly this is the right thing to do," Zipadelli said. "We at SHR support it and agree with it.
"It's a difficult time for both parties. There's not a lot you can do. The only thing we can do is do what we feel is right, and this is it. This is what we feel is right and are supporting Tony in it."
Because Stewart participated in Sprint Cup qualifying on Saturday, he remains eligible for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. To secure a spot in NASCAR's 10-race playoff, however, Stewart likely would have to win one of the four remaining races in the regular season.
Stewart-Haas representatives declined to address Stewart's plans beyond Sunday's race at Watkins Glen.