Tony Stewart will not compete in Sunday afternoon's Cheez-It 355 at The Glen following an incident Saturday night in which a race car driver was killed after he was struck on the track by Stewart's car.
The decision was announced Sunday morning by Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition for Stewart-Haas Racing.
"It's just an unbelievable tragedy. Our hearts go out to Kevin and his family," Zipadelli said. "Thoughts and prayers. This is a very tough, very emotional time for everybody -- his family, our family at Stewart-Haas, Tony Stewart. With that being said, we feel as a group that Tony will not drive today. Regan Smith is on his way up. NASCAR has approved for him to get in the race car today."
During a sprint car race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, driver Kevin Ward Jr. was spun out by Stewart, got out of his car to show his displeasure and then was struck by Stewart's car, sending Ward sliding down the track, fellow sprint car racer Tyler Graves and witness Adam Dulski told USA Today Sports.
"This is an ongoing investigation of an on-track crash," said Ontario County Sherriff Philip C. Povero.
Povero confirmed Sunday morning that Ward, 20, of Port Leyden, Lewis County, was killed in the crash. Ward was taken by ambulance to Thompson Health and was pronounced dead on arrival. The incident happened around 10:30 p.m. and Povero said Ward was pronounced dead at 11:15 p.m. Povero, who spoke to the media around 3 a.m. and again at about 8:30 a.m., held off on releasing the identity of the driver until his office could notify family and friends.
Povero indicated earlier that Stewart, 43, was "fully cooperative" and there were no charges pending at this time.
"Next is continuing interviews, a continued evaluation of evidence we have, including video, and there is certainly going to be an evaluation of medical evidence when it is collected from the autopsy," Povero said.
Zipadelli said early Sunday morning that Stewart was planning to race and NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said before the announcement nothing would preclude Stewart from driving.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends and competitors and everyone involved at that complex up there," Tharp said. "While it was a non-NASCAR-sanctioned event, everyone in the motor sports community has feelings for these types of situations. We've been through them before."
After 4 a.m., Mike Arning, a spokesman for NASCAR team Stewart-Haas Racing, which Stewart co-owns, issued the following statement: "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."
An Ontario County Sheriff's Department spokesperson confirmed deputies were on the scene and investigating an incident at the track before Povero spoke with the media around 3 a.m. Sunday morning.
Ward, who raced the No. 13 sprint car at the track, started racing go-karts in 1998 at 4, according to kevinwardracing.com.
Coming out of Turn 2, Stewart's car squeezed Ward's car up into the outside wall, turning it around. Ward's car had a flat tire as a result, and he exited the car to show his displeasure with Stewart's move. He marched down the track and was pointing at Stewart's car as he approached on the ensuing caution lap. Stewart's car then clipped Ward, who was run over and thrown a few yards down the track.
"It happened in Turn 2," said the 27-year-old Dulski. "The prior lap, Tony had gotten into him -- just spun him, nothing big, just spun him around. The caution came out. He hopped out of the car -- the driver of the 13 … he hopped out to go and yell and point a finger at Tony, typical thing.
"Tony came around … the back end slid out, and he definitely caught him -- I couldn't tell if it was with the front or the back of the car. … The body made contact with the car and went sliding across the track. It was the worst thing I've ever seen."
Graves, 16, of Bolivar, said he "grew up watching Kevin the last couple years, then I made the move to sprint cars. I now race a 360. I've raced alongside with Kevin the past two years. ...
"Tony and Kevin were battling. ... I believe they got together on the frontstretch, Kevin hit the wall and his tire went down. So he spun between (turns) 1 and 2. He got out of the car after the caution was thrown and began to walk down the track, pointing right at the 14, throwing his hands all around. The last thing I seen Kevin do was put his finger to his helmet."
Graves said he saw Ward caught up under the tire and then launched a few yards down the track. Ward hit the ground and didn't move, according to Graves.
According to Ward's website, he started driving sprint cars in 2010 when he notched five top-five finishes. In 2012, he was named Empire Super Sprint rookie of the year. This season was his fifth racing the Empire Super Sprints.
Adirondack International Raceway in northern New York canceled Sunday's scheduled racing. According to the track's website, Ward is the son of Kevin Ward Sr., who is a major sponsor for the racetrack. Ward Sr. owns Westward Painting Company in Lyons Falls.
The crash was a topic of conversation early Sunday morning among race fans at Watkins Glen.
"Everybody was talking about it, and everybody has seen the video," said 42-year-old Leo Smith of Perinton, a suburb of Rochester, Smith camped at the track and had spoken with 10 to 15 other fans by 7:30 a.m. "It's crazy," he said.
Don Bahtes of Rochester, sporting a Stewart T-shirt at the track Sunday morning, said he had been following the news.
"Very upsetting," Bahtes said the decision to sit out the race was announced. "We were just talking about how it's going to affect him. I hope he races.
"Why the guy got out of the car … it's just stupid to me. You don't do that. It's something that shouldn't have happened."
Tony Benaglio, 17, of Pittsburgh had a similar reaction after seeing the incident.
"My initial reaction when I saw it was how sad it is," Benaglio said. "I don't think Tony Stewart meant to hit him. I think he just didn't see him. He was going too fast. Those cars are too hard to slow down."
Benaglioi said he had no problem with Stewart racing.
"I think (Stewart) should go on just to get it out of his mind and think about the race and not what happened," he said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted Sunday: "We will all (lose) someone in our time. When a loss is sudden and unexpected, the pain & sadness is suffocating. Prayers for the Ward family."
Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup champion who suffered a compound fracture of his right leg in a sprint car accident a year ago, had just returned to the hobby he says helps fuel his success in NASCAR. He was scheduled to compete Sunday in a Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen.
In July of last year, Stewart also was involved in an incident at the Canandaigua track. He sparked a multi-car wreck that sent two drivers to the hospital with injuries.
After Saturday night's incident, racing was canceled for the rest of the night, according to the track's Facebook page.
In a later post, the track said: "Canandaigua Motorspots Park will not have an official statement on the accident that happened in the ESS race until tomorrow. Please pray for the entire racing community of fans, drivers, and families. Please be respectful in any comments."