As he ran out of gas on the final lap Sunday at Pocono Raceway, Tony Stewart wearily asked his team where he finished.
Ninth, he was told.
“Hell, I’ll take that,” he replied.
It was a curiously calm reaction considering only minutes before Stewart had been poised for a top-five finish. Maybe even top three. Stewart didn’t complain about the lost opportunity. He takes what he get on the race track these days, which are often bleak and embarrassing for the three-time NASCAR champion.
But that’s the way the last two years have gone for Stewart, who is to race Sunday at Watkins Glen International Raceway for the first time since 2012. He missed the 2013 race with a broken leg, then skipped the race last season following the accident in which his sprint car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. the night before the race.
Sunday, the day Stewart is scheduled to run NASCAR’s road course race, is the anniversary of Ward’s death.
Nothing has been the same for Stewart since the 20-year-old was killed when he climbed from his wrecked race car and walked down the track at Canandaigua Motorsports Park to confront the NASCAR star. Ward was struck and killed by Stewart, who called it “100 percent an accident.” A grand jury declined to indict Stewart.
Only twice had he broadly discussed the accident until Wednesday when he answered a few questions about the anniversary during a Speedway Children’s Charities event at Texas Motor Speedway.
Stewart gives rides in a stock car to the participants, but skipped his appearance last year as it fell during a three-week mourning period in which Stewart was in seclusion dealing with the trauma of Ward’s death.
He’s not the same person he was before Ward’s death, and he’s not the same driver, either. He’s acknowledged several times the last few months that his confidence has been shattered, his comfort level in a race car is questionable and it’s a struggle to find much joy in his profession.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be the same from what happened the last two years,” Stewart said Wednesday in Texas. “I don’t know how you could be, I don’t know how anybody ever could be back to exactly the way they were.
“But not being back exactly the same that I was doesn’t mean that I haven’t become better in some way. I think there’s always positives that come out of every scenario.”
Despite the gruff exterior and the growl he’s known for throughout a decorated NASCAR career, Stewart is actually sensitive and tries hard to avoid situations that can set him off. He never read any of the articles that vilified him for his role in the death of a young, aspiring race car driver. The vitriol was scathing, the jokes from comedians he enjoyed hurtful.
Stewart has people who monitor the narrative and they’ve always been smart enough to keep it away from him.
He’s hoping to go to Watkins Glen on Thursday and keep his head down and avoid the reminders of the last two years.
“I’m trying to not think about it. You guys (reporters) are the first ones to bring it up this week,” he said. “Unfortunately, I have a feeling that’s going to get brought up a lot this week, but it doesn’t help you continue to move forward with it.”
The easiest way to move forward and not linger on the tragedy is to put together a strong weekend on the track.
Those are hard to come by these days. The 44-year-old driver hasn’t won in 62 races, a streak that dates to Dover in June 2013, before he broke his leg.
But Watkins Glen is a specialty race and Stewart has won five previous times on the road course. And there’s been some hope the last two weeks — he qualified well at Indianapolis and ran OK until pit strategy blew his shot at a good finish.
He also had another good qualifying run last weekend at Pocono before running out of fuel dropped him to ninth.
“It’s been a decent couple of weeks,” he said. “I think it’s a little early to put judgment on whether we’ve got it figured it out or not, but at least we qualified well the last two weeks. That definitely has been a bonus for sure.”
Despite the bad memories now associated with Watkins Glen, Stewart is headed to the track with a positive attitude in what will be his first race there in three years. He’s hoping for rain Sunday so NASCAR will use rain tires, something he believes would give him an edge.
“I’m looking forward it. It’s definitely one of my favorite tracks. We’ve had really, really good luck there,” he said. “I’m actually praying for rain on Sunday. I don’t know why, but I have my heart set on racing in the rain at the Glen, so I’m hoping somewhere in the equation we can figure out how to rain.”
AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins contributed to this report from Fort Worth, Texas.