RICHMOND, Virginia — Tony Stewart, subdued and walking with a slight limp, made his way through the Richmond garage with a gaggle of fans trailing him from his car. He silently signed everything shoved in his hands and then disappeared into his team transporter.
Stewart returned to racing a week ago for the first time since his sprint car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. at an upstate New York dirt track. He'd spent three weeks in seclusion following Ward's Aug. 9 death, and returned to a NASCAR community eager to embrace the three-time champion in his time of grief.
But he was a solitary figure Friday at Richmond International Raceway, where his car wasn't great and the crowd seemed willing to give him his space.
"He's just plugging away, trying to get back in the groove. He's quiet," said Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing. "He's just staying focused on his car. He realizes this is a big weekend and trying to win the race, so that's what everybody is trying to do right now."
Stewart was granted a waiver by NASCAR last week that will permit him to participate in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship should he qualify. His only shot is by winning Saturday night at Richmond because a victory is an automatic berth. Stewart qualified 19th, his best starting spot at Richmond in four years.
Making the Chase is important to Stewart-Haas, Stewart's sponsors and his No. 14 team. But the investigation into Ward's death is ongoing, and authorities said last week as Stewart made his return that it could last at least another two weeks. No decision has been made about whether Stewart will face charges.
It makes it hard for Stewart and his team as they try to establish some normalcy and pick up the pieces after something he said will affect him forever. Stewart said last week he was in pain that nonetheless paled to the grief Ward's family and friends were experiencing.
Zipadelli, who has been with Stewart since his 1999 rookie season, said nothing the two have been through in their past prepared him for this. Although they won a pair of championships together as driver and crew chief, Zipadelli was tested often by Stewart. The team was tested again a year ago when Stewart broke his leg in a sprint car accident and missed the final 15 races of the season.
He was not cleared to get back in a race car until the first practice of the season at Daytona, and Stewart had only resumed sprint car racing one month before Ward's death.
"This is truly just a tragedy. You are talking about somebody who lost their life," Zipadelli said. "You are talking about (sprint car racing) that (Stewart) enjoyed, just loved to do it, it was his golf game, his hunting and fishing, whatever you want to call it, and it's just a really bad situation.
"There's a lot of things that he's gone through that I went through earlier in my life that we could sit and talk about. But this is something that none of us can."
Stewart has never before had a winless season and has only missed the Chase twice in his career — in 2006, the year after he won his second title, and last year when he was injured. But he was a force in 2006 despite not being championship-eligible, winning three of the 10 Chase races.
Zipadelli said they'll see where they are after Saturday night and then assess the rest of the season. Should Stewart not make the Chase, personnel moves could be made to the No. 14 team as SHR begins looking toward 2015.
"They haven't had an honest, good, solid healthy year to even get in the groove," Zipadelli said. "So if he doesn't win tomorrow night, it's all about moving people around and looking at whatever we've got to do to make this a better team for next year. It's (also) all about them trying to win "
Stewart has proven over his career to be able to rise above adversity and sometimes even perform at his highest level, but Zipadelli doesn't believe the past is applicable now.
"If there was somebody in the garage that you had to put in the car under the circumstances ... I think he has proven that in the past," Zipadelli said. "But again, this is different circumstances that's pretty hard to put behind you and completely get focused on one thing and get out and do it."
All content copyright ©2014 Daily Journal, a division of Home News Enterprises unless otherwise noted.