Updated 05:47 AM EDT, Thu, Jun 04, 2020

Tony Stewart's Well-Documented Temper Casts Doubt on 3-Time NASCAR Champ's Innocence in Incident that Killed Kevin Ward Jr.

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On a dimly lit dirt track in Canandaigua, N.Y., 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr.'s life ended just as his racing career was beginning.

Ward was bumped by NASCAR driver Tony Stewart during a local open-wheel sprint car event Saturday night. He spun out of control and immediately jumped out in search of Stewart. As Ward stood on the track pointing in the three-time champion's direction, one car swerved out of his way before Stewart's fishtailed, dragging the young racer under the right tire and flinging his lifeless body near the outside wall.

Ward was pronounced dead before arriving at nearby F.F. Thompson Hospital.

"There aren't words to describe the sadness i feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.," Steward said in a statement released Sunday morning. "It's a very emotional time for all involved. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends, and everyone affected by this tragedy."

Stewart didn't have to be at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. He was moonlighting before Sunday's Cheez-It 355, one of many races he missed last year due to a broken leg. Citing his emotional state, Stewart elected not to participate at the Watkins Glen International event, where he was replaced by Regan Smith. His team initially said it would be "business as usual" before Stewart's last-second change of heart.

From alienating teammates to battling drivers, Stewart has a long history of violence on and off the track. He punched a photographer in 2002, assessing a $50,000 fine. Two years ago, Stewart walked onto the track at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee and hurled his helmet at Matt Kenseth's car in frustration. A 15-car wreck at Canandaigua last July that sent two drivers to the hospital was also initiated by Stewart. He later admitted to being overaggressive.

"I know Tony could see him. I know how you can see out of these cars," said Tyler Graves, a sprint car driver and friend of Ward's told the Sporting News. "When Tony got close to him, he hit the throttle. When you hit a throttle on a sprint car, the car sets sideways. It sets sideways, the right rear tire hit Kevin, Kevin was sucked underneath and was stuck under it for a second or two and then it threw him about 50 yards."

Beyond the trauma of running Ward over, Stewart may face legal ramifications. Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said there isn't evidence to support criminal charges at this time and that eyewitness testimony and amateur video evidence is currently being gathered.

"This is right now being investigated as an on-track crash and I don't want to infer that there are criminal charges pending," Povero told ESPN. "When the investigation is completed, we will sit down with the district attorney and review it. But i want to make it very clear: there are no criminal charges pending at this time."

The case has been turned over to the district attorney's office.

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