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Days after deadly incident, Tony Stewart opts out of Michigan NASCAR race

By Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 7:25 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tony Stewart fatally struck dirt-track driver Kevin Ward Jr. last weekend
  • Authorities are investigating, but no charges have been filed in the case
  • Race team: Stewart won't be in the next Sprint Cup race, but he may return
  • The announcement comes the same day as Ward's funeral in New York state

(CNN) -- The same day the man he fatally struck was laid to rest, NASCAR driver Tony Stewart's team announced that he won't be racing this weekend -- though it didn't rule a return to the track soon thereafter.

In a brief statement, Stewart-Haas Racing said Thursday that Stewart "has decided not to compete" in Sunday's race in NASCAR's top division, the Sprint Cup Series.

Jeff Burton will take his place in the No. 14 car in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

"The driver change pertains only to Michigan," the Stewart-Haas Racing team said. "Stewart's plans for upcoming Sprint Cup races have yet to be determined."

Stewart's future outside the track is also in question, as authorities investigate the death of fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr. at an August 9 Empire Super Sprints series dirt-track race in upstate New York.

Driver Tony Stewart looks on in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on Friday, August 8, in Watkins Glen, New York. Stewart is a three-time champion in NASCAR's top division and also won a sprint car championship in 1995. Driver Tony Stewart looks on in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on Friday, August 8, in Watkins Glen, New York. Stewart is a three-time champion in NASCAR's top division and also won a sprint car championship in 1995.
Racer Tony Stewart
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Video from the Canandaigua Motorsports Park race shows two cars coming out of a turn, with Stewart's No. 14 car sliding up the track toward Ward's No. 13 car. The two cars get close and appear to make contact before Ward's car hits the wall and spins out.

Ward gets out of his crashed car and walks determinedly on the track toward the race cars, which had slowed for a yellow flag. Ward points a finger and appears to be yelling. One car swerves to avoid Ward on the half-mile dirt track.

Stewart's car passes close to Ward, and it appears that its right rear tire hits him.

Authorities announced two days later that 20-year-old Ward, a New York sprint car driver, had died of "massive blunt trauma."

Tony Stewart did not drive Sunday in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International race track.
Tony Stewart did not drive Sunday in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International race track.

Ontario County Sheriff Philip C. Povero said that there was no evidence at that point that a crime was committed, adding that the investigation was progressing well.

Some have speculated that Stewart -- who was interviewed after the incident -- could face charges.

Even if authorities don't press charges, one person not convinced of Stewart's innocence is Ward's father.

According to a story on Syracuse.com, Kevin Ward Sr. said that other drivers saw his son walking on the track.

"Apparently, Tony Stewart was the only one driving out there who didn't see him," the father said, according to the report.

In the same story, Kevin Ward Sr. asked the world to remember his son as a talented driver who seemingly "slept with a smile on his face."

Hundreds joined the Ward family to remember him Thursday at his funeral at South Lewis Central School.

The mourners passed a row of bouquets to get into the school, some wiping away tears as they did.

Afterward, people gathered outside to release balloons that were orange and white, Ward's racing colors. They then gave theracer one last round of applause, not because of his racing exploits but because of the young man he was.

As family friend Ray Falk recalled to CNN affiliate WSYR, "If you weren't laughing, he'd make you laugh."

Opinion: Why Tony Stewart isn't likely to face charges in racetrack death

In 2013: Injuries as debris flies into Daytona stands during fiery NASCAR crash

Jason Leffler, accomplished race car driver, dies in dirt-track accident

CNN's Steve Almasy contributed to this report.

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