UPDATED: WATKINS GLEN – Following Saturday's fatal accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, Tony Stewart will not compete in today's Cheez-It 355 at The Glen.
Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, struck another race car driver with his sprint car at the half-mile dirt track about 30 miles away from Watkins Glen International. The Empire Super Sprints driver, Kevin Ward Jr., was pronounced dead on arrival after he climbed out of his car to confront Stewart - who was competing at the popular Central New York bullring.
At 1:40 p.m. Sunday, Stewart released a statement, reading:
"There aren't words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr. It's a very emotional time for all involved, and it is the reason I've decided not to participate in today's race at Watkins Glen. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and everyone affected by this tragedy."
"It's just an unbelievable tragedy, our hearts obviously go out to Kevin's family - our thoughts and prayers," said Greg Zipadelli, the Vice President of competition at Stewart Haas Racing, and longtime friend and colleague of Stewart. "This is a very tough, very emotional time for everybody - his family, our family at Stewart Haas (and) Tony Stewart."
The accident occurred late Saturday night during the feature race. Ward crashed out of the event and got out of his car to chide Stewart when the 20-year-old sprint car veteran ran up to the car just as Stewart hit the accelerator to get away. Ward was thrown across the track by the impact of the right rear tire.
Regan Smith, a Syracuse-area native and Sprint Cup veteran, will replace Stewart in the familiar No. 14 Chevrolet for today's race at The Glen. Smith finished ninth in his most recent Sprint Cup race at WGI in 2012.
The decision for Stewart to sit out his second straight 90-lap race at The Glen was made early Sunday morning.
"We talked last night and throughout the night, 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 what we feel is right and this is what we feel is right and we're supporting Tony."
Stewart was interviewed by the Ontario County Sheriff's department, which was not treating the accident as a criminal incident.
In the midst of a scramble to earn a berth in NASCAR's Chase for the Championship, Stewart will be missing a race he's won five times. Zipadelli said there are no plans beyond today's race.
"Honestly, that is the furthest thing from our minds right now," he said, adding, "Today is all about doing what we can today to get through today and do it the best we can as a group and try to do it the right way. So we haven't even crossed that bridge yet."
Last August, Stewart broke a leg in a sprint car crash that sidelined him for the balance of the season, forcing him to miss the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen. Max Papis drove the No. 14 Chevrolet in last year's race at The Glen.
Stewart often drops in at local race tracks to compete during Sprint Cup race weekends, and has frequented Canandaigua and Yates County several times in the past. Stewart was a sprint car and USAC standout driver as a youth, which paved his path into big-time auto racing in the Indy Racing League and NASCAR.