Tony Stewart wasn't fully recovered from a traumatic leg injury in a crash last year. He might never recover from this -- neither his image nor his psyche.

The NASCAR star, known for his blunt tongue and quick temper, has crossed a line from which he can't walk back. And even though authorities initially are ruling the death accidental, Stewart will be forever linked with Kevin Ward Jr.

That link will likely outshine Stewart's three Sprint Cup championships, will make his ornery image much less charming.

But what Stewart will lose should be relegated to the back burner. Considering how we as a sports nation are infatuated with stars and controversy, Stewart will dominate the headlines. First, though, let's focus on Ward, who died Saturday after leaving his disabled sprint car and being struck by Stewart's on a dirt track in Canandaigua, New York.

Tony Stewart stands in the garage area after a Friday practice session at Watkins Glen International in New York. Stewart struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr.,
Tony Stewart stands in the garage area after a Friday practice session at Watkins Glen International in New York. Stewart struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr., 20, a sprint car driver who had climbed from his car and was on the track trying to confront Stewart during a race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York on Saturday night. (Derik Hamilton / Associated Press)

Because Pamela lost her son and Kevin Sr. lost his namesake. The two gear heads used to work on the younger's car at Westward Painting Company. the family business.

"It just makes your heart hurt for the Ward family and their loss," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said in an interview before Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, New York. "I know exactly what they're going to be dealing with for the foreseeable future."

Because a 20-year-old kid dying while participating in a sport he loves is much more tragic. The demise of Ward is worthy of pausing from this fantastical reality of sports and pondering hugging somebody, praying for somebody, appreciating something.


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Because South Lewis High in Turin, New York, lost one of its graduates from 2012 and Port Leydon, a town of pickup trucks and great manners, lost a jewel of its community.

"He asked if he could go through here on his four-wheeler," Ward neighbor Bruce Branagan told the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper in Turin. "I said sure, just make sure you wear a helmet. He always had to have the loudest one; you know how kids are."

Eventually, the discussion will be had about creating rules to prohibit drivers from exiting their cars on the track. Ward's decision to leave his wrecked vehicle to confront Stewart proved fatal.

Why couldn't he just stay in the car?

Assuredly, Stewart's role in this tragedy will be vetted to no end. We might never know how he came to clip Ward and drag him for several feet.

Some say Stewart couldn't see through the limited vision of the sprint car. Some report Stewart hit the throttle, causing the small-but-powerful car to fishtail into Ward.

Why couldn't he just go around the kid?

No doubt, this situation will be added to the context of Stewart's polarizing personality. His fights, aggressive personality and nose for trouble all take on a different context.

Kevin Ward Jr. was hit by Stewart’s car.
Kevin Ward Jr. was hit by Stewart's car. (Empire Super Sprints, Inc.)

Will this trauma rob him of the edge that made him great or make his bad boy aura unacceptable?

The nation will talk about these things for months, years. The safety and appropriateness of racing, a multibillion-dollar industry, will be called into question. Experts will pontificate. Every Stewart happening will become a major event.

And we'll relegate the 20-year-old to an afterthought, a footnote.

The kid who began racing go carts at 4 years old and won six track championships in eight years. Who won rookie of the year in the Empire Super Sprints Cup at 16. Who had the kind of heart and competitiveness that made him go after a Goliath like Stewart.

Let's consider Kevin Ward Jr. now. His tragic death should interrupt our existence in sports utopia.

Read Marcus Thompson II's blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/thompson.

Inside

Kevin Ward Jr., above, dies after being struck on track by Tony Stewart's car. PAGE 5


This image provided by Logan Messerly shows ambulances on the scene at Canandaigua Motorsports Park on Saturday Aug. 9, 2014 in Canandaigua, N.Y.(AP
This image provided by Logan Messerly shows ambulances on the scene at Canandaigua Motorsports Park on Saturday Aug. 9, 2014 in Canandaigua, N.Y.(AP Photo/Logan Messerly) (Derik Hamilton/AP)