Everybody has an opinion, whether they've watched the video once or 20 times or not at all. In the Social Media Court of Public Opinion, it seems like Tony Stewart has already been found guilty of everything from murder to manslaughter. On the flip side, Stewart's loyalists believe Kevin Ward Jr. walked right in the path of the Grim Reaper and suffered the fatal consequences.
When the NASCAR star hit Ward during a caution flag period at the sprint car race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park and killed the 20-year-old it wasn't treated as a tragedy as much as it was a call to arms. Several "experts" from around the country weighed in, sportswriters and broadcasters who have never met Stewart or attended a sprint car race gave us their "educated" opinions. They railed on track safety, lighting, the barbaric being of dirt racing, the mental state of both drivers at the time and what drastic steps need to be taken to prevent this from happening again.
It's natural because the only time most of these media types ever write or talk about racing is when somebody dies and then they can wax poetic and be applauded at the next baseball or football game by their press-box brethren.
The only person who truly knows what happened last Saturday night on that little dirt track in upstate New York is Stewart—everybody else is guessing. What some of us aren't guessing about is the man in the eye of the storm.
I've known Stewart since the mid-'90s. I've never been part of his posse, inner circle or pretend to be a confidant. We did a TV show together in 1996 for the local ABC affiliate and I was a big supporter, writing in 1996 he might be the next Parnelli Jones.
We've clashed verbally over the past three decades because Stewart enjoys arguing as much as he does running the Chili Bowl. In print I've called him petulant, brilliant, a punk, a wunderkind, a hypocrite, a throwback, a crybaby, a great guy with a big heart and a putz with a big mouth. I've watched him act like an 8-year-old and a week later make an 80-year-old tear up with an act of kindness. I've seen him lecture other drivers on professional protocol and then unhook his brain and drive into the side of the same guys he was preaching safety to.
We respect him for not pulling punches and at the same time we abhor him for shoving a defenseless photographer or cameraman. He could make Joe Gibbs swear – and not on a bible. But he's also done a lot of magnanimous things for people on the QT. Sometime his IQ didn't seem to match his car number and other times he was at the top of the class in street smarts. He can be maddening, charming and generous all in the same hour.
For much of his 43 years on this planet he's been a magnet for controversy and today he finds himself in a firestorm that nobody could imagine. And, because he's always been combative with the media, he's an easy target for the national media that seem convinced he's guilty of road rage.
The facts, as we know them, are that an angry young man ran down the track to gesture at Stewart for causing him to wreck and, in the blink of an eye, he was dead.
Did Ward get too close to Stewart and not give him a chance to react? It appears the driver directly in front of Tony has to swerve to miss Ward.
If you haven't sat inside a sprint car, visibility is limited with the seat, the built-up side panels, wings, etc. Combined with the lighting, all-black silhouette and close quarters, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Tony didn't see him until the last second.
Of course the only real evidence that something sinister could have occurred and this wasn't an open-and-shut case of wrong place/wrong time is the apparent audio of Stewart's throttle blipping. A few Tony's friends called to say they're worried he might have tried to squirt a little dirt on Ward or scare the kid and misjudged the distance. But there's also the very real chance he sped up to try and miss him. You steer a sprinter with the throttle as much as you do the steering wheel, so how do we know Stewart wasn't trying to turn down, accelerate and miss Ward?
There's even a new video that appears to show Ward reaching to grab Stewart's wing, although it's far from conclusive—just like the video we've been watching for five days.
It's all up for debate until we hear from Tony but to say he hit Ward on purpose is ludicrous. What makes anyone think Stewart even knew that somebody was mad at him until the agitated kid appeared right in front of him? The cause of the previous lap's collision wasn't some heinous slide job by Stewart; it was more like two guys racing hard for the same patch of ground. How can we know Stewart even felt what appeared to be the slight ?
The fact Stewart has a reputation (and documentation) of being a hothead and walking onto a track in order to throw his helmet at another car is both ironic and not applicable in this situation. His tantrums at other drivers came under the bright lights of Bristol or sunshine at Martinsville and he stood off to the side while launching his weapons of choice. He didn't play chicken with on-coming traffic.
Which is not to say that Ward is guilty of anything but reacting emotionally to a testosterone-charged moment like so many drivers before him. He was racing hard on his track with a legend before running out of room and smacking the guardrail. Did the fact it was Tony Stewart make Ward unbuckle, jump out and charge down the track? Would Ward have done that after tangling with anybody else? Did these two have some history?
Sadly, we'll never know the answers. And you can't help but wonder what might have happened if the kid had waited until after the race to confront Stewart. Pat Sullivan, the longtime voice of USAC racing at tracks all around the Midwest, reckons that Stewart might have put his arm around Ward and given him a couple grand to fix the car because that's the way he can be at times.
On the track, Stew is more sinner than saint. Intentionally ramming another stock car out of the way or spinning somebody on pit road is part of the NASCAR culture. But I can't believe the former IndyCar champion would ever use something as lethal as a sprint car as a weapon against a defenseless driver on foot. This wasn't some premeditated act of machismo or payback by either driver. There was one angry young man's actions, fueled by adrenaline. Whether the NASCAR star's reactions were in similar vein or whether he was instead completely startled by the sudden appearance of a gesticulating pedestrian in front of him is something only Stewart knows. What we all know is that the scene had the worst possible ending. One promising life is over and another will be permanently scarred.
The NASCAR star has always championed short-track and sprint-car racing. He loves running the dirt, owning teams and tracks, and he also knows that his presence can give promoters a big night. Yet he likes the fact he's just another driver at a sprint show and is allowed to blend in with the scenery.
Not anymore. I don't know what happened in those split seconds last Saturday, other than a guy who lives to race is likely dying inside and a young racer died needlessly.
Stewart certainly isn't the devil like some people think, but right now he's got to be in the same hell as Kevin Ward's grieving family.
Veteran motorsports journalist Robin Miller reports for RACER Magazine and the NBC Sports Network. This commentary was originally published at .