The Inside Line: Drivers rally around Stewart

( - While Tony Stewart continues to grieve in an undisclosed location following the death of Kevin Ward Jr., many of his fellow competitors in NASCAR remain supportive of Stewart and are defending his role in the tragic accident.

Stewart, a three-time champion in NASCAR's premier series, struck and killed Ward during a sprint car race on Aug. 9 at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park. Stewart has missed the previous two Sprint Cup Series races. Regan Smith substituted for him this past week at Watkins Glen International, and Jeff Burton filled in over the weekend at Michigan International Speedway.

As of now, there's no timetable on Stewart's return to racing. Representatives from Stewart-Haas Racing said last Friday that "it will be up to Tony when he's ready to get back in the car." Stewart drives the No. 14 Chevrolet in Sprint Cup and is a co-owner of SHR. The series heads to Bristol Motor Speedway later this week.

There are presently no criminal charges pending against Stewart; however, the investigation regarding Ward's death is ongoing. The investigation could take several more weeks.

Kevin Harvick, who's in his first season with SHR and one of Stewart's closest friends, has strongly defended his teammate. He finished second at Michigan. During his post-race press conference, Harvick criticized the media for its reporting of the Stewart/Ward incident.

"It has been a difficult week," Harvick said. "I think the hardest part for me has been the way the whole media thing has shaken down. It's an absolute tragic accident that has happened on both sides of the fence. You have one young man who is dead. You've got a guy that we know and are part of an organization that is just getting a lot of just crazy press.

"I've known Tony Stewart for a long time. You look, you know, you see what happened. I still don't believe that he even knew that he ran into that car. I know for sure that Tony Stewart is not going to run over somebody that's on a racetrack. I don't think there is anybody in this garage that would. It would be hard to find somebody in the racing world that could point that car, just run somebody over."

"You have just a lot of unknowledgeable people reporting on a situation that know absolutely nothing about racing. It's just really unfortunate, the perception that has been given to him. I know he'll stay strong and fight, and he'll get the right people and do all the right things. That is the part that has bothered me the most, is just the poor misrepresentation on the media side for him."

Harvick said that he has not talked with Stewart since the incident.

Stewart has not publicly spoken but did release a statement the day after the fatal accident, offering his condolences towards Ward and his family.

At Michigan, Burton finished 37th after he spent more than 20 laps in the garage to correct an electrical issue. Smith finished in the same position at Watkins Glen.

SHR vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli approached Burton last Wednesday to find out if he would be interested in driving Stewart's car at Michigan. Burton competed in Sprint Cup full time from 1994-2013. Prior to Michigan, he had made just two starts this season, driving the No. 66 car for Jay Robinson Racing/Michael Waltrip Racing at Las Vegas and New Hampshire. Next year, he will serve as an analyst for NBC Sports' coverage of NASCAR.

"This was honestly one of the hardest weeks I've ever spent, coming here on Friday and not knowing what to expect," Burton said. "I thought everybody did a really good job, put a great effort out there."

Burton has also been very supportive of Stewart and has strongly defended him.

"You have a lot of conversations about the 'what ifs' and all this, but at the end of the day, these are real people that are human beings and have feelings, and I think a lot of times we forget that," he said. "We talk about people like they are robots, and they are not. They are human beings.

"Just listening to some of the misinformation and people speculating about stuff, I just thought it was a travesty in a lot of ways. Ultimately, all that really weighed on me, knowing that we had two families, at least two families just in agonizing pain and really not being able to do anything about it."

While Stewart faces an uncertain future, he will continue to receive support from competitors and fans.

"I just can't imagine what he's going through," said Michigan race winner Jeff Gordon. "Can't imagine what the Ward family is going through. It's a very, very difficult time. But I support Tony, definitely support him. Wish I could pat him on the back, give him a hug, talk to him. I'd love to."

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