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Tony Stewart Returns To The NASCAR Track


Last night Kasey Kahne won the Oral-B USA 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. But the biggest story in NASCAR was the guy who finished 41st. Tony Stewart returned to racing three weeks after killing Kevin Ward Jr. during a race in upstate New York. Ward had crashed his car and blamed Stewart. He angrily ran onto the track to confront Stewart and was struck by Stewart's car. Now, Tony Stewart has not been charged with anything. An investigation is ongoing. But here to talk more with us about Stewart's return to racing is Nate Ryan of USA Today. Nate, welcome to the program.

NATE RYAN: Thanks for having me, Audie.

CORNISH: So you were at the race last night. Can you describe how the crowd reacted to Stewart's return?

RYAN: Very warmly. Tony Stewart received the longest and loudest of cheers during the driver introductions before the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And many of the fans were on their feet. There was a smattering of boos, but for the most part it was universally cheering.

CORNISH: Is this a testament to Tony Stewart's popularity or a kind of understanding that NASCAR fans have about the potential dangers of the sport?

RYAN: I think it's a little bit of both. I think Tony Stewart, certainly, is one of the most magnetic, charismatic personalities in NASCAR. He has an enormous fan base, and I think, certainly - driver's spoke about it as well - that there was a void the last three races without him being in the car and as a part of the series.

Beyond that though, I think there also is a sense that death is not uncommon in auto racing. And when it happens, there's this attitude, I think, among drivers - this sort of accepted philosophy that after you get thrown off of a horse, you get back on it. And the same attitude, I think, applies to racing in that when drivers feel as if they've gone through something really tough, the best therapy is to get back in the car as soon as they feel ready to do so. And that's what we heard time and again over the course of the Atlanta weekend - that everyone saw this as Tony Stewart needing to get back in the car to have the healing process begin.

CORNISH: At a press conference last Friday, Tony Stewart sounded very emotional. Here's a clip.


TONY STEWART: All of you have many questions and want a lot of answers, but, however, I need to respect the ongoing investigation process and cannot answer and address the questions at this time. Emotionally, I'm not sure if I could answer them anyway.

CORNISH: Nate Ryan, Tony Stewart had a history of his temper kind of getting away from him, but what has it been like seeing him now?

RYAN: It certainly - Audie, he was extremely subdued. When he met the media Friday he looked a little bit disheveled. And I think he struggled to keep his composure during that two minute and 30 second address.

And that somewhat - it's certainly unusual for Tony Stewart. He's known for being very fiery on the track and being very emotional, but he's also very articulate. He's an excellent interview. He can be very eloquent, and that was about as shaken as I've ever seen him in 15 years of covering him in NASCAR.

CORNISH: We heard Stewart mention the ongoing investigation that's being done by authorities is in Ontario County New York where the death occurred. Can you give us a sense of where that investigation stands?

RYAN: The Ontario County Sheriff told us Friday, Audie, that the investigation will last for at least two more weeks. They're attempting to do a complete forensic reconstruction of the crash, which occurred in a sprint car race. It's sort of like a minor level, grassroots racing event - much different from the stock cars that Stewart drives on Sundays in the Sprint Cup series. This race was held on dirt, and was - I think it's fair to say - kind of him competing against a bunch of weekend warriors and hopefuls such as Kevin Ward Jr. who want to reach the next level.

But this was Tony Stewart completing on a minor-league level. And, again, it's not unusual to have driver deaths, unfortunately, in auto racing, particularly at lower levels. But in this instance, the death was highly unusual for a driver to be outside of his car when he was struck and killed and certainly a unique situation for the Ontario County Sheriff's Department that's investigating it. And that's why I think it's certainly going to take a while to complete it.

CORNISH: Nate Ryan. He covers racing for USA Today. Nate, thanks so much.

RYAN: Thanks for having me, Audie. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.