The shadow of Kevin Ward Jr. stretches long over Tony Stewart, a year after Stewart struck and killed him during a sprint-car race on a dirt track in upstate New York.
You see it every week as NASCAR spins through its endless summer, and as Stewart struggles weekly to be competitive. Only a shrink popping the hood on his head and rummaging around could say for sure if his struggles are some lingering after-effect of that night in New York. But it is demonstrably true that he hasn't remotely been the driver he was before that night.
And now the shadow gets thicker.
Now Ward's family is filing a wrongful death suit, a not-unexpected development given the family's statements after Stewart was cleared by a grand jury. The amount of damages sought isn't yet known, but at issue is whether or not Stewart was driving in a reckless manner under caution, causing his car to get loose and the back wheel to hit Ward.
I've watched tape of the incident at least a dozen times. And I'm convinced Stewart wasn't trying to hit Ward, that when he gunned his engine to go past him he simply may have been trying to close up the gap between himself and the car in front of him.
Which is not to say the Ward family doesn't have a case here.
See, I think you can also watch the tape and reasonably conclude Stewart may have been either trying to spook the kid or shower him with dirt. I think he's telling the absolute truth when he says he knows in his heart it was an accident, because he wasn't trying to hit Ward. But trying to mess with him is a whole other matter. If he really was trying to do that, the Ward family's going to have a decent case that Stewart was being reckless.
The burden of proof in a civil suit, after all, is yea different than it is in a criminal proceeding. Which means the outcome can be yea different as well. You can ask O.J. Simpson about that.
In any event, both sides are well lawyered up, with Stewart represented by an attorney who counts Bob Knight, another notable hothead, among his past clients. Now everything hinges on his ability to definitively prove he wasn't being Tony Stewart that night, but just another guy racing a sprint car on a Friday night in dirt track America.
Which, ironically, is all he's ever sought to be on those nights.