Tony Stewart took another step on the road back to something resembling normality this week as he underwent his first media appearance since the start of August, speaking in quiet, solemn tones about the events that had taken place over the last two months. It was the first opportunity for the three-time champion to take questions from the press since that fateful night at Canandaigua Motorsports Park on August 9.
The evening before he had been scheduled to compete in the annual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Watkins Glen International, Stewart had headed upstate to take part in a regional dirt-track sprint car event only for the night to end in tragedy when Stewart's vehicle struck and killed fellow competitor Kevin Ward Jr., who had walked back down onto the track to remonstrate with Stewart over a previous racing incident between the pair.
Since then, Stewart has been the subject of a police investigation and grand jury deliberation to determine whether he should face any criminal charges over the 20-year-old's death. The matter was finally decided last Wednesday with the grand jury declaring there were no grounds to press charges, but until the decision was handed down Stewart had been required to keep a low profile and not make public statements because of the legal ramifications of anything he might have inadvertently said. Now, though, he was finally able to talk in detail about his feelings regarding the tragedy.
"As a race car driver, driving a race car is all that consumed my life," he began. "It's all I thought about, it's all I cared about, and everything else was second on down the list of priorities for me. I think this has given me the opportunity to sit here and think about other aspects of my life and what they're going to mean to me in the future.
"Not that I don't love what I do, because I do love it," he added. "[But] it's not what we do all the time. There are more things to our life than what we have as a profession. So it's made me think about some of those other aspects of my life that kind of have been put on hold for years."
Asked if he would have done anything differently in hindsight, Stewart answered succinctly: "I'd have stayed at Watkins Glen that night.
"I do this stuff and I go run those cars to have a good time and that's all I wanted to do that night," he explained. "I wanted to go have fun. I had just spent the week at Knoxville, and it gives you the edge and desire to want to go race. It wasn't a big paying race for sprint car standards. I just wanted to go run my sprint car for a night. I do it to have fun, and it didn't end up being fun that night."
Even though Stewart had been confident in his own mind about exactly what had occurred that night, he admitted that the grand jury process had been nerve-wracking while he waited for the outcome.
"I would be lying if I said there wasn't a piece of relief," he said. "Anytime you're facing something like that and your fate is in someone else's hands, it's natural to be fearful. But all along I knew what the facts are. I knew what had happened, and I know what happened. I think through the process of the sheriff's department and the district attorney and going to a 23-person grand jury, all the facts were presented and their decision spoke. It was what I knew.
"But that was very short-lived in my heart. Because as quickly as it was relief in my heart, at the same time it went right back to the fact that we lost Kevin. We lost a young driver that had a lot of talent."
The subsequent revelation that Ward had tested positive for marijuana use in a quantity said to have been sufficient to impair his judgement had been a major factor in the grand jury's deliberations and in media coverage and public reaction since it was made known last week, but Stewart said that as far as he was concerned this was irrelevant and shouldn't be used by anyone to attribute blame for what happened.
"It didn't change anything," he said of the toxicology report. "No matter what was said, it was still a tragic accident. I just know in my heart that it was a hundred percent an accident; that detail didn't mean anything to me personally.
"To me it's worthless to pick sides. A young man lost his life, and I don't care what side you're on, it doesn't change that," he said. "His family's in mourning. I'm in mourning. My family is in mourning. Picking sides isn't solving or fixing anything. It's a waste of time to pick sides. Instead of honouring a young man that had a promising racing career, people are picking sides and throwing - it's like watching people throw darts at each other.
"It's disappointing at this point, honestly, because instead of supporting each other and the racing community is such a strong family, that it's dividing people that on a daily basis would help each other," he added. "There is no point in it. It doesn't solve anything. It doesn't fix anything. At the end of the day, it's not going to make anybody feel any better about it."
Talking about feelings, Stewart went on to speak about his own emotions and reactions in the days immediately following the accident.
"I think the first three days that I was home I really didn't do anything. I didn't get out of bed. I didn't care if I took a shower. I left my room to go get food, and that you almost had to make yourself eat. It's the first three or four days I didn't want to talk to anybody. Didn't want to see anybody, I just wanted to be by myself.
"You take it one day at a time," he said. "Before the accident happened, a day would fly by and now a day seems like two or three days. The clock seems like the batteries are running low.
"You finally get up and you finally start moving around a little bit and every day got a little bit easier, but it was a big, drastic change from what I was used to, for sure, not having the desire to do anything," he added. "All you thought about is what happened and asking yourself why. Why did this happen? So you just sat there for entire days on end asking questions and trying to come to terms with what happened and why it happened."
Even once he'd returned to the race track, he admitted that things had still been strained. "I go from the motorhome to the car, and the car to the trailer, and the trailer back to the car, and that's literally all I've done since I came back," he said. "Even after Wednesday here in Charlotte, I haven't left my house. It's just an awkward feeling."
Stewart said that the support he'd received after the accident and in the weeks since while the Ontario County (NY) Sheriff and District Attorney carried out their investigations had made all the difference to helping him get through those difficult and bleak couple of months.
"I've got a lot of friends who have been supportive through this entire thing, and there are a lot of people that have shown how much they cared and it would be nice to go and visit and talk to those people again.
"There were a lot of text messages and people that have reached out that I'm now starting the process of getting in touch with them and thanking them for their support and explaining why I didn't get back to them [before]," he continued. "There's been so much that I've learned from my peers, my friends through this whether it's been through personal experiences or just kind words that they've said. That is the advice that they've given us that's really meant a lot. And that's something that the rest of my life I don't think I could spend the rest of my life and accurately thank everybody for what they've done to help us get through this."
A key moment was when he returned to racing for the first time at the end of August at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Stewart describing the support he received from the crowd during the pre-race driver introductions as a moment that he would never forget.
"At first I thought I accidentally walked out in Dale Jr.'s spot, but it was very overwhelming," he recalled. "I'm glad I had sunglasses on. But it was probably the most flattering and humbling part of my career was to walk out there and have that kind of reception. Riding around in the back of the pick-up truck and seeing people against the fence that were cheering for us and they had Jeff Gordon shirts on and Carl Edwards shirts and Matt Kenseth shirts. Didn't matter what they had on, it really showed the support.
"At Bristol, something that I was really happy with was the fact that on the 13th lap, people held up 13 for Kevin, and on the 14th lap held it up for us. And I think it shows the kind of bond that race fans and the racing community have with each other."
Although he's been back competing since Atlanta after withdrawing from three NASCAR Sprint Cup events in the wake of Ward's death, Stewart agreed that things had been far from back to normal for him - and that it would be a long time before they were, but that racing was helping.
"It's not been business as usual by any means, and this is going to be a healing process for me," he said. "It makes you think about a lot of things other than driving race cars, but the one thing that's probably helped me more than anything is being back at the racetrack and being around my racing family and remembering that I have a passion for what I do. So that's probably helped me more than anything when it's come to trying to make that next step to move forward.
"I think after talking with you guys today we'll start getting back into doing meet and greets and appearances again," he added. "Another step of making forward progress is getting back to trying to resume what was the best of a normal life before this. I think it's important for me to do that and get back to doing it as soon as possible."
Stewart said that although he hadn't known Ward personally before the accident, he was still open to meeting with the family if that would be any help to them as they mourn the loss of their son.
"Honestly, before the accident I didn't know Kevin," admitted Stewart. "I don't even know how many times I had raced with him. I race with that group a couple times a year. They've always been a great group to race with, but I didn't know him. Obviously, after the accident I've read a lot about him, and from what I've read, I think he had a really promising career as a sprint car driver. It sounded like he was doing a good job and learning a lot at a young age, so I think he had a lot to look forward to.
"I want to be available to [the family] if they want to talk about it. At this point, I don't need to talk to them for closure. I know what happened, and I know it was an accident, but I'm offering to talk to them to help them, if it helps them with closure. So I said it when we were in Atlanta, and I still believe that I want to be available to them if and when they ever want to talk."
That seems unlikely in the short-term, with the family still raw with grief and threatening to initiate a civil suit against Stewart, a matter that Stewart himself could not talk about on Monday for legal reasons.
Even though Stewart himself is not involved in this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase play-offs, he is getting back to work as the co-owner of the Stewart-Haas Racing organisation which still has Kevin Harvick in title contention. Stewart admitted that he felt he had "let my team down" over recent weeks by not being able to be a more proactive help at the race track while the legal process over Ward's death took precedence.
"I've been a little bit of a cheerleader, but that's about all I've been able to contribute here the last seven weeks," he agreed. "It's just, like I mentioned earlier, it's been hard for me to function day-to-day. There hasn't been anything normal about my life the last seven weeks, so it's been very hard to try to do anything to be productive to help those guys. You try to be a cheerleader, you try to keep them pumped up about what they're do being, but other than that, I haven't been able to contribute too much."
One more thing that had been hanging over Stewart during this time was the reaction of his big-name sponsors including Mobil 1 and whether they would continue to back the team financially considering what had happened.
"It's obviously a tough circumstance for anybody to be a part of it, for a corporation to be part of it as well, but they've been very supportive through this whole process," said Stewart. "I can't speak to what the future will be for them. They've been supportive to this point and that's something I've been very grateful for."
As for his hobby of sprint car racing in regional events in between NASCAR competitions, Stewart said that it would be a long time before he considered making a return - if he ever does.
"I'm not going to say I'm never going to get in one," he insisted. "But when I got hurt, it was as soon as I got healed and as soon as things got settled in with the Cup car I was set that I was wanting to get in one, but right now I wouldn't even be able to give you a small idea of if and when I'll ever get back in a car. So at this point I won't be in one for a while."
But one thing was certain - Stewart is not considering giving up professional motor racing as a whole: "There was never a thought in my head about stopping," he insisted.
Stewart knows that eventually, somewhere down the road, some sense of normality will reassert itself no matter how impossible that seems to him and all those involved in last month's tragic accident at this point.
"I've had other people that I've known for years that have come to me and told me personal stories of tragedies that have happened in their life that a lot of us don't know about," he said. "Their experiences and their advice really has hit home for me. I do believe as time goes on it will be different every day. It may. I don't know if it will ever get back to normal, but it will get better.
"I don't think any of us ever read anything in a book at school or read anything on how to deal with a tragedy like this," he added. "To have somebody there that could help us through that and help us be able to make forward progress was very important, and it's still - we're still using them. It's not something that gets back to normal overnight.
"It's something we'll deal with a for a long time, but it's nice to have that kind of support and that kind of guidance that will help you learn how to cope with it, deal with it, and start moving on."